I had a mixture of feelings when I looked at the display of the Agenda application on my Samsung Note smartphone:
On the face of things, I was going to be very busy at 09:00 that morning – I had five simultaneous meetings to attend!
But they were all the same meeting. And in fact I had already cancelled that meeting. Or, at least, I had tried to cancel that meeting. I had tried to cancel it several times.
The meeting in question – “TPR” – the Technology Planning Review that I chair from time to time inside Accenture Mobility – is a meeting I had organised, on a regularly repeating basis. This particular entry was set to repeat every four weeks. Some time earlier, I had decided that this meeting no longer needed to happen. From my Outlook Calendar on my laptop, I had pressed the button that, ordinarily, would have sent cancellation messages to all attendees. At first, things seemed to go well – the meeting disappeared from sight in my Outlook calendar.
However, a couple of hours later, I noticed it was still there, or had re-appeared. Without giving the matter much thought, I imagined I must have experienced some finger problem, and I repeated the cancellation process.
Some time later, I glanced at my engagements for that day on my smartphone – and my heart sank. The entry was shown no less than nine times, stacked on top of each other. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine. Woops.
(The screenshot above only shows the entry appearing five times. That’s because I deleted four of the occurrences before I had the presence of mind to record the image for posterity.)
To tell the truth, I also had a wry, knowing smile. It was a kind of “aha, this confirms that synchronising agendas can be hard” smile. “Thank goodness there are duplicate entry bugs on Android phones too!”
That uncharitable thought had its roots in many moments of personal embarrassment over the years, whenever I saw examples of duplicated entries on phones running Symbian OS. The software that synchronised agenda information across more than one device – for example, between a PC and a connected Symbian smartphone – got into a confused state on too many occasions. Symbian software had many strengths, but laser accuracy of agenda entry synchronisation was not one of them.
But in this case, there was no Symbian software involved. The bug – whatever it was – could not be blamed on any software (such as Symbian OS) for which I personally had any responsibility.
Nevertheless, I still felt bad. The meeting entry that I had created, and had broadcast to a wide number of my Accenture Mobility colleagues, was evidently misbehaving on their calendars. I had to answer several emails and instant messaging queries: Is this meeting happening or not?
Worse, the same problem applied to every one of the repeating entries in the series. Entries show up in the calendars of lots of my Accenture colleagues, once every four weeks, encouraging them to show up for a meeting that is no longer taking place.
Whether I tried to cancel all the entries in the series, or just an individual entry, the result was the same. Whether I cancelled them from my smartphone calendar or from Outlook on my laptop, the result was the same. Namely, the entry disappeared for a while, but re-appeared a few hours later.
Today I tried again. Looking ahead to the meeting slot planned for 30th August, I thought I would be smart, and deleted the entry, both from my smartphone calendar, and from Outlook on my laptop, within a few seconds of each other, just in case a defective synchronisation between the two devices was to blame. You guessed it: the result was the same. (Though this time it was about three hours before the entry re-appeared, and I was starting to think I had cracked it after all.
So what’s going on? I found a clue in an unexpected place – the email folder of Deleted Items in Microsoft Outlook. This showed an email that was unread, but which had somehow moved directly into the Deleted Items folder, without me seeing it.
The entry read as follows:
Microsoft Outlook on behalf of <one of the meeting participants>
One or more problems with this meeting were detected by Exchange 2010.
This meeting is missing from your calendar. You’re the meeting organizer and some attendees still have the meeting on their calendar.
And just as Outlook had silently moved this email into the Deleted Items folder, without drawing my attention to it, Outlook had also silently reinstated the meeting, in my calendar and (it seems) in everyone else’s calendar, without asking me whether or not that was a good idea. Too darned clever.
I still don’t know how to fix this problem. I half-suspect there’s been some kind of database corruption problem – perhaps caused by Microsoft Exchange being caught out by:
- Very heavy usage from large numbers of employees (100s of 1000s) within one company
- Changes in policy for how online meetings are defined and operated, in between when the meeting was first created, and when it was due to take place
- The weird weather we’ve experienced in London this summer
- Some other who-knows-what strange environmental race conditions.
However, I hear of tales of other colleagues experiencing similar issues with repeating entries they’ve created, which provides more evidence of a concrete software defect, rather than a random act of the universe.
Other synchronisation problems
As I said, when I reflected on what was happening, I had a wry smile. Synchronisation of complex data between different replications is hard, when the data could be altered in more than one place at the same time.
Indeed, it’s sometimes a really hard problem for software to know when to merge apparent duplicates together, and when to leave them separated. I’m reminded of that fact whenever I do a search in the Contacts application on my Android phone. It often lists multiple entries corresponding to a single person. Some of these entries show pictures, but others don’t. At first, I wasn’t sure why there were multiple entries. But closer inspection showed that some details came from my Google mail archives, some from my collection of LinkedIn connections, some from my set of Facebook Friends, and so on. Should the smartphone simply automatically merge all these instances together? Not necessarily. It’s sometimes not clear whether the entries refer to the same person, or to two people with similar names.
If that’s a comparatively simple example, let me finish with an example that takes things further afield. It’s not about the duplication and potential re-integration of agenda entries. Nor is it about the duplication and potential re-integration of pieces of contacts info. It’s about the duplication and potential re-integration of human minds.
Yes: the duplication and potential re-integration of human minds.
That’s a topic that came up in a presentation in the World Future 2012 conference I attended in Toronto at the end of July.
Chemical Brain Preservation: How to Live “Forever”
About 57 million unique and precious human beings die every year, or 155,000 people every day. The memories and identities in their brains are permanently lost at present, but may not be in the near future.
Chemical brain preservation is a technique that many scientists believe may inexpensively preserve our memories and identity when we die, eventually for less than $10,000 per person in the developed world, and less than $3,000 per person in the developing world. Preserved brains can be stored at room temperature in cemeteries, in contract storage, or even in private homes. Our organization, the Brain Preservation Foundation (brainpreservation.org), is offering a $100,000 prize to the first scientific team to demonstrate that the entire synaptic connectivity of mammalian brains, where neuroscientists believe our memories and identities reside, can be perfectly preserved using these low-cost chemical techniques.
There is growing evidence that chemically preserved brains can be “read” in the future, like a computer hard drive, so that memories, and even the complete identities of the preserved individuals can be restored, using low-cost automated techniques. Amazingly, given the accelerating rate of technological advance, a person whose brain is preserved in 2020 might “return” to the world, most likely in a computer form, as early as 2060, while their loved ones and some of their friends are still alive…
Note: this idea is different from cryonics. Cryonics also involves attempted brain preservation, at an ultra-low temperature, but with a view to re-animating the brain some time in the future, once medical science has advanced enough to repair whatever damage brought the person to the point of death. (Anyone serious about finding out more about cryonics might be interested in attending the forthcoming Alcor-40 conference, in October; this conference marks the 40th anniversary of the founding of the most famous cryonics organisation.)
In contrast, the Brain Preservation Foundation talks about reading the contents of a brain (in the future), and copying that information into a computer, where the person can be re-started. The process of reading the info from the brain is very likely to destroy the brain itself.
There are several very large questions here:
- Could the data of a brain be read with sufficient level of detail, and recreated in another substrate?
- Once recreated, could that copy of the brain be coaxed into consciousness?
- Even if that brain would appear to remember all my experiences, and assert that it is me, would it be any less of a preservation of me than in the case of cryonics itself (assuming that cryonics re-animation could work)?
- Given a choice between the two means of potential resurrection, which should people choose?
The first two of these questions are scientific, whereas the latter two appear to veer into metaphysics. But for what it’s worth, I would choose the cryonics option.
My concern about the whole program of “brain copying” is triggered when I wonder:
- What happens if multiple copies of a mind are created? After all, once one copy exists in software, it’s probably just as easy to create many copies.
- If these copies all get re-animated, are they all the same person?
- Imagine how one of these copies would feel if told “We’re going to switch you off now, since you are only a redundant back-up; don’t worry, the other copies will be you too”
During the discussion in the meeting in Toronto, John Smart talked about the option to re-integrate different copies of a single mind, resulting in a whole that is somehow better than each individual copy. It sounds an attractive idea in principle. But when I consider the practical difficulties in re-integrating duplicated agenda entries, a wry, uneasy smile comes to my lips. Re-integrating complex minds will be a zillion times more complicated. That project could be the most interesting software development project ever.