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21 June 2016

5G World Futurist Summit

Filed under: disruption, Events, futurist — Tags: , , , , — David Wood @ 11:30 pm

Intro slide

On Wednesday next week, 29th June, it will be my pleasure to chair the Futurist Summit which is one of the free-to-attend streams happening as part of the 5G World event taking place at London’s Olympia.

You can read more about the summit here, and more about the 5G World event here.

The schedule for the summit is as follows:

11:00 Introduction to the Futurist Summit
David Wood – Chair, London Futurists & Principal, Delta Wisdom

11:30 Education 2022 – MOOCs in full use, augmented by AIs doing marking and assessment-setting
Julia Begbie – Deputy Director of Studies – KLC School of Design

12:00 Healthcare 2022 – Digital healthcare systems finally fulfilling the promise that has long been expected of them
A
vi Roy – Biomedical Scientist & Research Fellow at the Centre for Advancing Sustainable Medical Innovation (CASMI) – Oxford University

12:30 Finance 2022 – Anticipating a world without physical cash, and in many cases operating without centralised banks
Jeffrey Bower, Digital Finance Specialist, United Nations

13:00 Networking Lunch

14:00 Reinventing urban mobility for new business strategies…self-driving cars and beyond
Stephane Barbier – CEO – Transpolis

14:30 The Future of Smart Cities
Paul Copping – Smart City Advisor – Digital Greenwich, Royal Borough of Greenwich

15:00 The Future of Computer Security and ‘Cybercrime’
Craig Heath, Director, Franklin Heath 

15:30 What happens when virtual reality experiences become more engaging than those in the real world?”
Steve Dann, Founder & CEO, Amplified Robot 

16:00 End of Futurist Summit

Speakers slide

Each of the 30 minute slots in the Summit will include a presentation from the speaker followed by audience Q&A.

If you’re in or near London that day, I hope to see many of you at the Summit!

Note that, although the Futurist Summit is free to attend, you need to register in advance for a Free Expo Pass, via the 5G World conference registration page. You’ll probably see other streams at the event that you would also like to attend.

Stop press: Any members of London Futurists can obtain a 50% discount off the price of a full pass to 5G World – if you wish to attend other aspects of the event – by using the Priority Code Partner50 on the registration webpage.

 

 

21 October 2014

An exponential approach to peace?

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

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

Opening slide

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

Conference overview

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

Industrial robots

DNA sequencing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A third level of exponential change

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

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

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

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

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

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

Framework picture

Peace Grand Challenge

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

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

Rocket picture v2

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

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

Among the further details from the contest website:

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

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

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

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

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

Footnote: discounted price to attend the SU Summit Europe

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

 

 

28 July 2012

More for us all, or more for them?

Filed under: books, disruption, Economics, futurist, Humanity Plus, politics, UKH+ — David Wood @ 1:15 pm

The opening keynote speaker at this weekend’s World Future 2012 conference this weekend was Lee Rainie, the Director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. Lee’s topic, “Future of the Internet”, was described as follows in the conference agenda:

In this keynote presentation based on his latest book, Networked: The New Social Operating System (co-authored with Barry Wellman), Dr. Rainie will discuss the findings of the most recent expert surveys on the future of teens’ brains, the future of universities, the future of money, the impact of Big Data, the battle between apps and the Web, the spread of gamefication, and the impact of smart systems on consumers.

That was a lot to cover in 45 minutes, but Lee said he would speak fast – and he did!

Analysis  of the Pew Internet expert surveys Lee mentions is available online at http://www.elon.edu/e-web/predictions/expertsurveys/2012survey/ – where you’ll find a wealth of fascinating material.

But Lee’s summary of the summary (if I can put it like that) is that there are two potential pathways ahead, between now and 2020, regarding what happens with Internet technology:

  1. In one pathway, we all benefit: the fruits of improving Internet technologies are widely shared
  2. In another pathway, the benefits are much more restricted, to “them”.

Hence the question: “More for us all, or more for them?”

“Them” could be political leaders, or it could be corporate leaders.

Listening to Lee’s words, I was struck by a powerful resonance with the main theme of a BIG book on history that I’m the processing of reading. (Actually, I’m listening to an Audible version of it on my iPod.)

The book is “Why nations fail the origins of power, prosperity, and poverty“, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. It has a marvelous sweep through events in all eras of human history and in all corners of the globe.

I’m only six hours into what will be a 15 hour long listen, but I already suspect this to be the most important book about history that I’ve ever read. (And as regular readers of this blog know, I read a lot.)

It’s not just “one thing after another” (fascinating though that kind of history book can be), but a profound analysis of the causes of divergence between societies with prosperity and societies with poverty.

In brief, the primary differentiator is the kind of political institutions that exist:

  • Are they extractive, in which the outputs of society are siphoned by a relatively small elite
  • Or are they inclusive, which a much greater sharing of power, influence, and potential benefit?

The nature of political institutions in turn influence the nature and operation of economic institutions.

The book has many striking examples of how ruling elites blocked the development or the wider application of technology and/or market reforms, fearing the “creative destruction” which would be likely to follow – threatening their grip on power.

One example in the book is the story of the reaction of the Roman emperor Tiberius to the invention of unbreakable glass. This story is also told by, for example, Computer World blogger John Riley, in his article “Why innovation is not always welcomed with open arms“:

The story of the Roman inventor of flexible glass 2000 years ago is a salutary lesson for all innovators, especially those within organisations.

As Isadore of Seville tells it, the inventor went to the Roman Emperor Tiberius (14-37 AD) with a drinking bowl made of this flexible and ductile glass, and threw in on the ground to demonstrate that it didn’t shatter.

Tiberius asked him if anyone else knew about the invention. The inventor said he’d told no-one.

And he was instantly beheaded.

What the unfortunate inventor hadn’t seen was the big picture – Tiberius had instantly realised that cheap, easily produced flexible glass that didn’t break would wreck the Imperial monopoly on gold and silver!

That, sadly is too often the case in big companies, where someone comes up with a bright idea which in practice means interfering with a profitable short term operation or disintermediating a product line.

In such cases innovators these days don’t get killed – they get ignored, sidelined, blocked or gagged under non-disclosures. Many innovative products have been  rejected by large suppliers controlling projects when they threaten monopolistic inefficiencies. There are many cases of other innovations being bought up and mothballed…

As Acemoglu and Robinson point out, in a different political climate, the inventor could have taken his invention to market without the explicit knowledge and permission of the ruling elite (such as the emperor). That would be a world in which, to return to my opening question, there would more likely be technology benefits for everyone, rather than control of technology being subordinated to the benefits of a clique.

But our current political climate is highly troubled. My friend and Humanity+ UK co-organiser Amon Kalkin describes the situation like this:

We are in a time of crisis. Large numbers of people are increasingly disenfranchised, squeezed on all sides and with no hope of appeal to authorities. Why? Because those very same authorities – our governments – are virtually indistinguishable from the corporate interests who are gaining most from the current situation. We live under a system where our votes essentially don’t matter. You can pick a team, but you’re not allowed to change the rules of the game. Even worse, we have been trained to think of this as a normal and natural situation. Who are we to question these powerful people? Who are we to awaken, to unify and demand change?

Rather than just considering the topic “Why Nations Fail“, we might well consider “Why Transnational Institutions Fail” – referring to, for example, the evident problems within the Eurozone and within the United Nations.

The same imperative applies: we need to find a mode of collaboration that avoids being subverted by the special interests of ruling minorities – whether these minorities be economic elites or political elites.

That imperative has led Amon to found the Zero State movement:

Zero State is a movement for positive social change through technology.

We’re a grass-roots world community pursuing smart, compassionate solutions to problems, and improving the human condition.

Personal transformative technologies we pursue include life extension and Artificial Intelligence. Social projects include accelerating changebasic incomeMeshnet and Bitcoin, while lifestyle initiatives explore areas such as the arts, spirituality, fashion and culture.

More recently, Amon and various other Zero State members are launching a political party, “Consensus“, to promote their Zero State vision. My quote above (“We are in a time of crisis…”) comes from Amon’s description of what he plans to say at the launch meeting for Consensus that will take place next weekend in London.

For more details about this launch event, see this announcement on the London Futurist meetup site:

The case for a Zero State political movement

Many futurists envisage a better, more compassionate society, organized in terms of using technological developments to maximize well-being rather than simply concentrating resources in a few ultra-rich hands and leaving everybody else increasingly worse off. But all too often, futurists talk about positive outcomes as if such things come without work or struggle. They are apparently oblivious to the fact that right now our society is stalling, strangled by a tiny proportion of citizens who do not share our values.

There have been few moments in the history of our society like the one facing us now, where deep crisis also offers the opportunity for deep, positive change. It’s the time for futurists to step up to actively guide our society toward the better futures we envisage.

The CONSENSUS is a newly-formed UK-based political party which seeks to harness the intelligence and compassion to be found among futurists and other subcultures to the design of a real, improved future, for us and our children. Drawing inspiration from the eight principles of the Zero State movement, the CONSENSUS will encourage people to think about the possibilities open to society once again.

The CONSENSUS is the first party of its kind. We intend to reach out to other parties and groups who share similar views and goals. If we are successful, there will soon be a number of CONSENSUS parties at the national level around the world, all part of an organization known as the Consensus of Democratic Futurist Parties (CDFP). The UK CONSENSUS is already affiliated with an international futurist organization in the Zero State movement, and the seeds of multiple local political parties have been sown.

We welcome the opportunity to hear your views about the state of society today and its future, and what are the issues and goals that we should focus on. No matter what your own views are, this is your chance to have your say, and to have it influence a concrete course of action.

If you care about our future, and the possibility of finding intelligent, compassionate solutions to our problems, then we encourage you to come to this meeting to:

  • find out how you can help
  • join the conversation
  • offer your views on how we should move forward…

3 June 2012

Super-technology and a possible renaissance of religion

Filed under: death, disruption, Humanity Plus, rejuveneering, religion, Singularity, UKH+ — David Wood @ 11:02 pm

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” – Arthur C. Clarke

Imagine that the human race avoids self-destruction and continues on the path of increased mastery of technology. Imagine that, as seems credible some time in the future, humans will eventually gain the ability to keep everyone alive indefinitely, in an environment of great abundance, variety, and  intrinsic interest.

That paradise may be a fine outcome for our descendants, but unless the pace of technology improvement becomes remarkably rapid, it seems to have little direct impact on our own lives. Or does it?

It may depend on exactly how much power our god-like descendants eventually acquire.  For example, here are two of the points from a radical vision of the future known as the Ten cosmist convictions:

  • 5) We will develop spacetime engineering and scientific “future magic” much beyond our current understanding and imagination.
  • 6) Spacetime engineering and future magic will permit achieving, by scientific means, most of the promises of religions — and many amazing things that no human religion ever dreamed. Eventually we will be able to resurrect the dead by “copying them to the future”.

Whoa! “Resurrect the dead”, by “copying them to the future”. How might that work?

In part, by collecting enormous amount of data about the past – reconstructing information from numerous sources. It’s similar to collecting data about far-distant stars using a very large array of radio telescopes. And in part, by re-embodying that data in a new environment, similar to copying running software onto a new computer, giving it a new lease of life.

Lots of questions can be asked about the details:

  • Can sufficient data really be gathered in the future, in the face of all the degradation commonly called “the second law of thermodynamics”, that would allow a sufficiently high-fidelity version of me (or anyone else) to be re-created?
  • If a future super-human collected lots of data about me and managed to get an embodiment of that data running on some future super-computer, would that really amount to resurrecting me, as opposed to creating a copy of me?

I don’t think anyone can confident about answers to such questions. But it’s at least conceivable that remarkably advanced technology of the future may allow positive answers.

In other words, it’s at least conceivable that our descendants will have the god-like ability to recreate us in the future, giving us an unexpected prospect for immortality.

This makes sense of the remark by radical futurist and singularitarian Ray Kurzweil at the end of the film “Transcendent Man“:

Does God exist? Well I would say, not yet

Other radical futurists quibble over the “not yet” caveat. In his recent essay “Yes, I am a believer“, Giulio Prisco takes the discussion one stage further:

Gods will exist in the future, and they may be able to affect their past — our present — by means of spacetime engineering. Probably other civilizations out there already attained God-like powers.

Giulio notes that even the celebrated critic of theism, Richard Dawkins, gives some support to this line of thinking.  For example, here’s an excerpt from a 2011 New York Times interview, in which Dawkins discusses an essay written by theoretic physicist Freeman Dyson:

In one essay, Professor Dyson casts millions of speculative years into the future. Our galaxy is dying and humans have evolved into something like bolts of superpowerful intelligent and moral energy.

Doesn’t that description sound an awful lot like God?

“Certainly,” Professor Dawkins replies. “It’s highly plausible that in the universe there are God-like creatures.”

He raises his hand, just in case a reader thinks he’s gone around a religious bend. “It’s very important to understand that these Gods came into being by an explicable scientific progression of incremental evolution.”

Could they be immortal? The professor shrugs.

“Probably not.” He smiles and adds, “But I wouldn’t want to be too dogmatic about that.”

As Giulio points out, Dawkins develops a similar line of argument in part of his book “The God Delusion”:

Whether we ever get to know them or not, there are very probably alien civilizations that are superhuman, to the point of being god-like in ways that exceed anything a theologian could possibly imagine. Their technical achievements would seem as supernatural to us as ours would seem to a Dark Age peasant transported to the twenty-first century…

In what sense, then, would the most advanced SETI aliens not be gods? In what sense would they be superhuman but not supernatural? In a very important sense, which goes to the heart of this book. The crucial difference between gods and god-like extraterrestrials lies not in their properties but in their provenance. Entities that are complex enough to be intelligent are products of an evolutionary process. No matter how god-like they may seem when we encounter them, they didn’t start that way…

Giulio seems more interested in the properties than the provenance. The fact that these entities have god-like powers prompts him to proclaim “Yes, I am a believer“.  He gives another reason in support of that proclamation: In contrast to the views of so-called militant atheists, Giulio is “persuaded that religion can be a powerful and positive force”.

Giulio sees this “powerful and positive force” as applying to him personally as well as to groups in general:

“In my beliefs I find hope, happiness, meaning, the strength to get through the night, and a powerful sense of wonder at our future adventures out there in the universe, which gives me also the drive to try to be a better person here-and-now on this little planet and make it a little better for future generations”.

More controversially, Giulio has taken to describing himself (e.g. on his Facebook page) as a “Christian”. Referring back to his essay, and to the ensuing online discussion:

Religion can, and should, be based on mutual tolerance, love and compassion. Jesus said: “love thy neighbor as thyself,” and added: “let he who is without sin, cast the first stone”…

This is the important part of his teachings in my opinion. Christian theology is interesting, but I think it should be reformulated for our times…

Was Jesus the Son of God? I don’t think this is a central issue. He certainly was, in the sense that we all are, and he may have been one of those persons in tune with the universe, more in tune with the universe than the rest of us, able to glimpse at veiled realities beyond our senses.

I’ve known Giulio for several years, from various Humanity+ and Singularity meetings we’ve both attended – dating back to “Transvision 2006” in Helsinki. I respect him as a very capable thinker, and I take his views seriously. His recent “Yes, I am a believer” article has stirred up a hornets’ nest of online criticism.

Accordingly, I was very pleased that Giulio accepted my invitation to come to London to speak at a London Futurist / Humanity+ UK meeting on Saturday 14th July: “Transhumanist Religions 2.0: New Cosmist religion and spirituality for our boundless future (and our troubled present)”. For all kinds of reason, this discussion deserves a wider airing.

First, I share the view that religious sentiments can provide cohesion and energy to propel individuals and groups to undertake enormously difficult projects (such as the project to avoid the self-destruction of the human race, or any drastic decline in the quality of global civilisation).  The best analysis I’ve read of this point is in the book “Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society” by David Sloan Wilson.  As I’ve written previously:

This book has sweeping scope, but makes its case very well.  The case is that religion has in general survived inasmuch as it helped groups of people to achieve greater cohesion and thereby acquire greater fitness compared to other groups of people.  This kind of religion has practical effect, independent of whether or not its belief system corresponds to factual reality.  (It can hardly be denied that, in most cases, the belief system does not correspond to factual reality.)

The book has some great examples – from the religions in hunter-gatherer societies, which contain a powerful emphasis on sharing out scarce resources completely equitably, through examples of religions in more complex societies.  The chapter on John Calvin was eye-opening (describing how his belief system brought stability and prosperity to Geneva) – as were the sections on the comparative evolutionary successes of Judaism and early Christianity.  But perhaps the section on the Balinese water-irrigation religion is the most fascinating of the lot.

Of course, there are some other theories for why religion exists (and is so widespread), and this book gives credit to these theories in appropriate places.  However, this pro-group selection explanation has never before been set out so carefully and credibly, and I think it’s no longer possible to deny that it plays a key role.

The discussion makes it crystal clear why many religious groups tend to treat outsiders so badly (despite treating insiders so well).  It also provides a fascinating perspective on the whole topic of “forgiveness”.  Finally, the central theme of “group selection” is given a convincing defence.

But second, there’s no doubt that religion can fit blinkers over people’s thinking abilities, and prevent them from weighing up arguments dispassionately. Whenever people talk about the Singularity movement as having the shape of a religion – with Ray Kurzweil as a kind of infallible prophet – I shudder. But we needn’t lurch to that extreme. We should be able to maintain the discipline of rigorous independent thinking within a technologically-informed renaissance of positive religious sentiment.

Third, if the universe really does have beings with God-like powers, what attitude should we adopt towards these beings? Should we be seeking in some way to worship them, or placate them, or influence them? It depends on whether these beings are able to influence human history, here and now, or whether they are instead restricted (by raw facts of space and time that even God-like beings have to respect) to observing us and (possibly) copying us into the future.

Personally my bet is on the latter choice. For example, I’m not convinced by people who claim evidence to the contrary. And if these beings did have the ability to intervene in human history, but have failed to do so, it would be evidence of them having scant interest in widespread intense human suffering. They would hardly be super-beings.

In that case, the focus of our effort should remain squarely on building the right conditions for super-technology to benefit humanity as a whole (this is the project I call “Inner Humanity+“), rather than on somehow seeking to attract the future attention of these God-like beings. But no doubt others will have different views!

7 May 2011

Workers beware: the robots are coming

Filed under: books, challenge, disruption, Economics, futurist, robots — David Wood @ 9:07 pm

What’s your reaction to the suggestion that, at some stage in the next 10-30 years, you will lose your job to a robot?

Here, by the word “robot”, I’m using shorthand for “automation” – a mixture of improvements in hardware and software. The suggestion is that automation will continue to improve until it reaches the stage when it is cheaper for your employer to use computers and/or robots to do your job, than it is to continue employing you. This change has happened in the past with all manner of manual and/or repetitive work. Could it happen to you?

People typically have one of three reactions to this suggestion:

  1. “My job is too complex, too difficult, too human-intense, etc, for a robot to be able to do it in the foreseeable future. I don’t need to worry.”
  2. “My present job may indeed be outsourced to robots, but over the same time period, new kinds of job will be created, and I’ll be able to do one of these instead. I don’t need to worry.”
  3. “When the time comes that robots can do all the kinds of work that I can do, better than me, we’ll be living in an economy of plenty. I won’t actually need to work – I’ll be happy to enjoy lots more leisure time. I don’t need to worry.”

Don’t need to worry? Think again. That’s effectively the message in Martin Ford’s 2009 book “The lights in the tunnel“. (If you haven’t heard of that book, perhaps it’s because the title is a touch obscure. After all, who wants to read about “lights in a tunnel”?)

The subtitle gives a better flavour of the content: “Automation, accelerating technology, and the economy of the future“. And right at the top of the front cover, there’s yet another subtitle: “A journey to the economic landscape of the coming decades“. But neither of these subtitles conveys the challenge which the book actually addresses. This is a book that points out real problems with increasing automation:

  • Automation will cause increasing numbers of people to lose their current jobs
  • Accelerating automation will mean that robots can quickly become able to do more jobs – their ability to improve and learn will far outpace that of human workers – so the proportion of people who are unemployed will grow and grow
  • Without proper employment, a large proportion of consumers will be deprived of income, and will therefore lack the spending power which is necessary for the continuing vibrancy of the economy
  • Even as technology improves, the economy will stagnate, with disastrous consequences
  • This is likely to happen long before technologies such as nanotech have reached their full potential – so that any ideas of us existing at that time in an economy of plenty are flawed.

Although the author could have chosen a better title for his book, the contents are well argued, and easy to read. They deserve a much wider hearing.  They underscore the important theme that the process of ongoing technological improvement is far from being an inevitable positive.

There are essentially two core threads to the book:

  • A statement of the problem – this effectively highlights issues with each of the reactions 1-3 listed earlier;
  • Some tentative ideas for a possible solution.

The book looks backwards in history, as well as forwards to the future. For example, it includes interesting short commentaries on both Marx and Keynes. One of the most significant backward glances considers the case of the Luddites – the early 19th century manufacturing workers in the UK who feared that their livelihoods would be displaced by factory automation. Doesn’t history show us that such fears are groundless? Didn’t the Luddites (and their descendants) in due course find new kinds of employment? Didn’t automation create new kinds of work, at the same time as it destroyed some existing kinds of work? And won’t that continue to happen?

Well, it’s a matter of pace.  One of most striking pictures in the book is a rough sketch of the variation over time of the comparative ability of computers and humans to perform routine jobs:

As Martin Ford explains:

I’ve chosen an arbitrary point on the graph to indicate the year 1812. After that year, we can reasonably assume that human capability continued to rise quite steeply until we reach modern times. The steep part of the graph reflects dramatic improvements to our overall living conditions in the world’s more advanced countries:

  • Vastly improved nutrition, public health, and environmental regulations have allowed us to remain relatively free from disease and reach our full biological potential
  • Investment in literacy and in primary and secondary education, as well as access to college and advanced education for some workers, has greatly increased overall capability
  • A generally richer and more varied existence, including easy access to books, media, new technologies and the ability to travel long distances, has probably had a positive impact on our ability to comprehend and deal with complex issues.

A free download of the entire book is available from the author’s website.  I’ll leave it to you to evaluate the author’s arguments for why the two curves in this sketch have the shape that they do.  To my mind, these arguments have a lot of merit.

The point where these two curves cross – potentially a few decades into the future – will represent a new kind of transition point for the economy – perhaps the mother of all economic disruptions.  Yes, there will still be some new jobs created.  Indeed, in a blogpost last year, “Accelerating automation and the future of work“, I listed 20 new occupations that people could be doing in the next 20 years:

  1. Body part maker
  2. Nano-medic
  3. Pharmer of genetically engineered crops and livestock
  4. Old age wellness manager/consultant
  5. Memory augmentation surgeon
  6. ‘New science’ ethicist
  7. Space pilots, tour guides and architects
  8. Vertical farmers
  9. Climate change reversal specialist
  10. Quarantine enforcer
  11. Weather modification police
  12. Virtual lawyer
  13. Avatar manager / devotees / virtual teachers
  14. Alternative vehicle developers
  15. Narrowcasters
  16. Waste data handler
  17. Virtual clutter organiser
  18. Time broker / Time bank trader
  19. Social ‘networking’ worker
  20. Personal branders

However, the lifetimes of these jobs (before they too can be handled by improved robots) will shrink and shrink.  For a less esoteric example, consider the likely fate of a relatively new profession, radiology.  As Martin Ford explains:

A radiologist is a medical doctor who specializes in interpreting images generated by various medical scanning technologies. Before the advent of modern computer technology, radiologists focused exclusively on X-rays. This has now been expanded to include all types of medical imaging, including CT scans, PET scans, mammograms, etc.

To become a radiologist you need to attend college for four years, and then medical school for another four. That is followed by another five years of internship and residency, and often even more specialized training after that. Radiology is one of the most popular specialties for newly minted doctors because it offers relatively high pay and regular work hours; radiologists generally don’t need to work weekends or handle emergencies.

In spite of the radiologist’s training requirement of at least thirteen additional years beyond high school, it is conceptually quite easy to envision this job being automated. The primary focus of the job is to analyze and evaluate visual images. Furthermore, the parameters of each image are highly defined since they are often coming directly from a computerized scanning device. Visual pattern recognition software is a rapidly developing field that has already produced significant results…

Radiology is already subject to significant offshoring to India and other places. It is a simple matter to transmit digital scans to an overseas location for analysis. Indian doctors earn as little as 10 percent of what American radiologists are paid… Automation will often come rapidly on the heels of offshoring, especially if the job focuses purely on technical analysis with little need for human interaction. Currently, U.S. demand for radiologists continues to expand because of the increase in use of diagnostic scans such as mammograms. However, this seems likely to slow as automation and offshoring advance and become bigger players in the future. The graduating medical students who are now rushing into radiology for its high pay and relative freedom from the annoyances of dealing with actual patients may eventually come to question the wisdom of their decision

Radiologists are far from being the only “high-skill” occupation that is under risk from this trend.  Jobs which involve a high degree of “expert system” knowledge will come under threat from increasingly expert AI systems.  Jobs which involve listening to human speech will come under threat from increasingly accurate voice recognition systems.  And so on.

This leaves two questions:

  1. Can we look forward, as some singularitarians and radical futurists assert, to incorporating increasing technological smarts within our own human nature, allowing us in a sense to merge with the robots of the future?  In that case, a scenario of “the robots will take all our jobs” might change to “substantially enhanced humans will undertake new types of work”
  2. Alternatively, if robots do much more of the work needed within society, how will the transition be handled, to a society in which humans have much more leisure time?

I’ll return to the first of these questions in a subsequent blogpost.  Martin Ford’s book has a lot to say about the second of these questions.  And he recommends a series of ideas for consideration:

  • Without large numbers of well-paid consumers able to purchase goods, the global economy risks going into decline, at the same time as technology has radically improved
  • With fewer people working, there will be much less income tax available to governments.  Taxation will need to switch towards corporation tax and consumption taxes
  • With more people receiving handouts from the state, there’s a risk of loss of many of aspects of economic structure which previously have been thought essential
  • We need to give more thought, now, to ideas for differential state subsidy of different kinds of non-work activity – to incentivise certain kinds of activity.  That way, we’ll be ready for the increasing disturbances placed on our economy by the rise of the robots.

For further coverage of these and related ideas, see Martin Ford’s blog on the subject, http://econfuture.wordpress.com/.

2 April 2011

Virtual futures and digital natives

Filed under: disruption, Events, futurist, Humanity Plus — David Wood @ 6:34 pm

A child born today will be immersed in a world that is, more than ever, virtual…  With a single Google search, a child has instant access to a plethora of information. With Google Earth the entire globe can be navigated with little travel-cost endured. And languages can be translated without a single understanding of the complex linguistics of other cultures…

These words are taken from the blog for the forthcoming University of Warwick Virtual Futures 2.0’11 conference.  The stated theme of the conference is “Digital natives: fear of the flesh?”.  The phrase “digital native” refers to someone young enough (in body or in spirit) to find themselves at home in the fast-evolving digital connected world.

But is anyone truly at home in this world?  The author of the blog, Luke Robert Mason, continues as follows, drawing on comments made by performance artist Stelarc who took part in an earlier Virtual Futures conference:

But this virtual world is also plagued by complexity – a complexity born of information which the  biological brain is not designed to comprehend.  As performance artist Stelarc stated in his early work, “It is time to question whether a bipedal, breathing body with binocular vision and a 1400cc brain is an adequate biological form. It cannot cope with the quantity, complexity and quality of information it has accumulated; it is intimidated by the precision, speed and power of technology and it is biologically ill-equipped to cope with its new extraterrestrial environment.”

The Virtual Futures 2.0 conference rekindles a series of trailblazing conferences that the University of Warwick hosted in 1994, 1995, and 1996, attracting upwards of 300 attendees:

These conferences questioned the future possibility of the ‘virtual’ and alluded towards the impact of emerging technologies on society and culture. They were, at their time, revolutionary…

The topics discussed at the conferences in the 90’s included chaos theory, geopolitics, feminism, nanotechnology, cyberpunk fiction, machine music, net security, military strategy, plastic surgery, hacking, bio-computation, cognition, cryptography & capitalism. These topics are still poignant today with perhaps the addition of genetics, bio-engineering, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, bio-ethics and social media.

Call for papers

The conference organisers have now issued a call for papers:

The revival aims to reignite the debates over the implications of new and future communication technologies on art, society and politics. The conference will take place on the 18th-19th June 2011 and include paper presentations, panels, performances, screenings and installations.

We welcome researchers, scholars and artists to submit proposals for papers and/or performances around this year’s theme of: “Digital Natives: Fear of the Flesh?”…

Please send proposals (250 words max) to papers@virtualfutures.co.uk by 1st May 2011.

Interested in presenting or performing at the event?  As for myself, I’m preparing a proposal to speak at the conference.  I’m thinking about speaking on the topic “Beyond super phones to super humans – a journey along the spectrum of personal commitment to radical technological transformation“.

I like the conference focus on “digital natives” but I’m less convinced about the “Fear of the flesh?” coda.  Yes, my human flesh has lots of limitations.  But I look ahead to far-reaching bodily improvement, rather than to leaving my flesh altogether behind.  Other radical futurists, in contrast, seem to eagerly anticipate a time when their mind will be entirely uploaded into a virtual world.  There’s ground for lots of debate here:

  • Are these visions credible?
  • Are these visions desirable?
  • How should such visions be evaluated, in a world full of pressing everyday problems?
  • Which of these personal futures should we prioritise?

No doubt these questions, along with many others, will be tackled at the event.

Note: Virtual Futures 2.0 is organised at the University of Warwick with support from the Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning, the School of Theatre, Performance and Cultural Policy Studies, and the Centre for History of Medicine, in association with Humanity+ UK.

28 December 2010

Some suggested books for year-end reading

Looking for suggestions on books to read, perhaps over the year-end period of reflection and resolution for renewal?

Here are my comments on five books I’ve finished over the last few months, each of which has given me a lot to think about.

Switch: How to change things when change is hard – by Chip & Dan Heath

I had two reasons for expecting I would like this book:

I was not disappointed.  The book is full of advice that seems highly practical – advice that can be used to overcome all kinds of obstacles that people encounter when trying to change something for the better.  The book helpfully lists some of these obstacles in a summary chapter near its end.  They include:

  • “People here don’t see the need for change”
  • “People resist my idea because they say, ‘We’ve never done it like that before'”
  • “We should do doing something, but we’re getting bogged down in analysis”
  • “The environment has shifted, and we need to overcome our old patterns of behaviour”
  • “People here simply aren’t motivated to change”
  • “People here keep saying ‘It will never work'”
  • “I know what I should be doing, but I’m not doing it”
  • “I’ll change tomorrow”…

Each chapter has profound insights.  I particularly liked the insight that, from the right perspective, the steps to create a solution are often easier than the problem itself.  This is a pleasant antidote to the oft-repeated assertion that solutions need to be more profound, more complex, or more sophisticated, that the problems they address.  On the contrary, change efforts frequently fail because the change effort is focussing on the wrong part of the big picture.  You can try to influence either the “rider”, the “elephant”, or the “path” down which the elephant moves.  Spend your time trying to influence the wrong part of this combo, and you can waste a great deal of energy.  But get the analysis right, and even people who appear to hate change can embrace a significant transformation.  It all depends on the circumstance.

The book offers nine practical steps – three each for the three different parts of this model:

  • Direct the rider: Find the bright spots; Script the critical moves; Point to the destination
  • Motivate the elephant: Find the feeling; Shrink the change; Grow your people
  • Shape the path: Tweak the environment; Build habits; Rally the herd.

These steps may sound trite, but these simple words summarise, in each case, a series of inspirational examples of real-world change.

The happiness advantage: The seven principles of positive psychology that fuel success and performance at work – by Shawn Achor

“The happiness advantage” shares with “Switch” the fact that it is rooted in the important emerging discipline of positive psychology.  But whereas “Switch” addresses the particular area of change management, “The happiness advantage” has a broader sweep.  It seeks to show how a range of recent findings from positive psychology can be usefully applied in a work setting, to boost productivity and performance.  The author, Shawn Achor, describes many of these findings in the context of the 10 years he spent at Harvard.  These findings include:

  • Rather than the model in which people work hard and then achieve success and then become happy, the causation goes the other way round: people with a happy outlook are more creative, more resilient, and more productive, are able to work both harder and smarter, and are therefore more likely to achieve success in their work (Achor compares this reversal of causation to the “Copernican revolution” which saw the sun as the centre of the solar system, rather than the earth)
  • Our character (including our degree of predisposition to a happy outlook) is not fixed, but can be changed by activity – this is an example of neural plasticity
  • “The Tetris effect”: once you train your brain to spot positive developments (things that merit genuine praise), that attitude increasingly becomes second nature, with lots of attendant benefits
  • Rather than a vibrant social support network being a distraction from our core activities, it can provide us with the enthusiasm and the community to make greater progress
  • “Falling up”: the right mental attitude can gain lots of advantage from creative responses to situations of short-term failure
  • “The Zorro circle”: rather than focussing on large changes, which could take a long time to accomplish, there’s great merit in restricting attention to a short period of time (perhaps one hour, or perhaps just five minutes), and to a small incremental improvement on the status quo.  Small improvements can accumulate a momentum of their own, and lead on to big wins!
  • Will power is limited – and is easily drained.  So, follow the “20 second rule”: take the time to rearrange your environment – such as your desk, or your office – so that the behaviour you’d like to happen is the easiest (“the default”).  When you’re running on auto-pilot, anything that requires a detour of more than 20 seconds is much less likely to happen.  (Achor gives the example of taking the batteries out of his TV remote control, to make it less likely he would sink into his sofa on returning home and inadvertently watch TV, rather than practice the guitar as he planned.  And – you guessed it – he made sure the guitar was within easy reach.)

You might worry that this is “just another book about the power of positive thinking”.  However, I see it as a definite step beyond that genre.  This is not a book that seeks to paint on a happy face, or to pretend that problems don’t exist.  As Achor says, “Happiness is not the belief that we don’t need to change.  It is the realization that we can”.

Nonsense on stilts: how to tell science from bunk – by Massimo Pigliucci

Many daft, dangerous ideas are couched in language that sounds scientific.  Being able to distinguish good science from “pseudoscience” is sometimes called the search for a “demarcation principle“.

The author of this book, evolutionary biologist Massimo Pigliucci, has strong views about the importance of distinguishing science from pseudoscience.  To set the scene, he gives disturbing examples such as people who use scientific-sounding language to deny the connection between HIV and AIDS (and who often advocate horrific, bizarre treatments for AIDS), or who frighten parents away from vaccinating their children by quoting spurious statistics about links between vaccination and autism.  This makes it clear that the subject is far from being an academic one, just for armchair philosophising.  On the other hand, attempts by philosophers of science such as Karl Popper to identify a clear, watertight demarcation principle all seem to fail.  Science is too varied an enterprise to be capable of a simple definition.  As a result, it can take lots of effort to distinguish good science from bad science.  Nevertheless, this effort is worth it.  And this book provides a sweeping, up-to-date survey of the issues that arise.

The book brought me back to my own postgraduate studies from 1982-1986.  My research at that time covered the philosophy of mind, the characterisation of pseudo-science, creationism vs. Darwinism, and the shocking implications of quantum mechanics.  All four of these areas were covered in this book – and more besides.

It’s a book with many opinions.  I think it gets them about 85% right.  I particularly liked:

  • His careful analysis of why “Intelligent Design” is bad science
  • His emphasis on how pseudoscience produces no new predictions, but is intellectually infertile
  • His explanation of the problems of parapsychology (studies of extrasensory perception)
  • The challenges he lays down to various fields which appear grounded in mainstream science, but which are risking divergence away from scientific principles – fields such as superstring theory and SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence).

Along the way, Pigliucci shares lots of fascinating anecdotes about the history of science, and about the history of philosophy of science.  He’s a great story-teller.

The master switch: the rise and fall of information empires – by Tim Wu

Whereas “Nonsense on stilts” surveys the history of science, and draws out lessons about the most productive ways to continue to find out deeper truths about the world, “The master switch” surveys many aspects of the modern history of business, and draws out lessons about the most productive ways to organise society so that information can be shared in the most effective way.

The author, Tim Wu, is a professor at Columbia Law School, and (if anything) is an even better story-teller than Pigliucci.  He gives rivetting accounts of many of the key episodes in various information businesses, such as those based on the telephone, radio, TV, cinema, cable TV, the personal computer, and the Internet.  Lots of larger-than-life figures stride across the pages.  The accounts fit together as constituents of an over-arching narrative:

  • Control over information technologies is particularly important for the well-being of society
  • There are many arguments in favour of centralised control, which avoids wasteful inefficiencies of competition
  • Equally, there are many arguments in favour of decentralised control, with open access to the various parts of the system
  • Many information industries went through one (or more phases) of decentralised control, with numerous innovators working independently, before centralisation took place (or re-emerged)
  • Government regulation sometimes works to protect centralised infrastructure, and sometimes to ensure that adequate competition takes place
  • Opening up an industry to greater competition often introduces a period of relative chaos and increased prices for consumers, before the greater benefits of richer innovation have a chance to emerge (often in unexpected ways)
  • The Internet is by no means the first information industry for which commentators had high, idealistic hopes: similar near-utopian visions also accompanied the emergence of broadcast radio and of cable television
  • A major drawback of centralised control is that too much power is vested in just one place – in what can be called a “master switch” – allowing vested interests to drastically interfere with the flow of information.

AT&T – the company founded by Bell – features prominently in this book, both as a hero, and as a villain.  Wu describes how AT&T suppressed various breakthrough technologies (including magnetic disk recording, usable in answering machines) for many years, out of a fear that they would damage the company’s main business.  Similarly, RCA suppressed FM radio for many years, and also delayed the adoption of electronic television.  Legal delays were often a primary means to delay and frustrate competitors, whose finances lacked such deep pockets.

Wu often highlights ways in which business history could have taken different directions.  The outcome that actually transpired was often a close-run thing, compared to what seemed more likely at the time.  This emphasises the contingent nature of much of history, rather than events being inevitable.  (I know this from my own experiences at Symbian.  Recent articles in The Register emphasise how Symbian nearly died at birth, well before powering more than a quarter of a billion smartphones.  Other stories, as yet untold, could emphasise how the eventual relative decline of Symbian was by no means a foretold conclusion either.)

But the biggest implications Wu highlights are when the stories come up to date, in what he sees as a huge conflict between powers that want to control modern information technology resources, and those that prefer greater degrees of openness.  As Wu clarifies, it’s a complex landscape, but Apple’s iPhone approach aims at greater centralised design control, whereas Google’s Android approach aims at enabling a much wider number of connections – connections where many benefits arise, without the need to negotiate and maintain formal partnerships.

Compared to previous information technologies, the Internet has greater elements of decentralisation built into it.  However, the lessons of the previous chapters in “The master switch” are that even this decentralisation is vulnerable to powerful interests seizing control and changing its nature.  That gives greater poignancy to present-day debates over “network neutrality” – a term that was coined by Wu in a paper he wrote in 2002.

Sex at dawn: the prehistoric origins of modern sexuality – by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha

(Sensitive readers should probably stop reading now…)

In terms of historical sweep, this last book outdoes all the others on my list.  It traces the origins of several modern human characteristics far into prehistory – to the time before agriculture, when humans existed as nomadic hunter-gatherers, with little sense of personal exclusive ownership.

This book reminds me of this oft-told story:

It is said that when the theory of evolution was first announced it was received by the wife of the Canon of Worcester Cathedral with the remark, “Descended from the apes! My dear, we will hope it is not true. But if it is, let us pray that it may not become generally known.”

I’ve read a lot on evolution over the years, and I think the evidence husband and wife authors Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha accumulate chapter after chapter, in “Sex at dawn”, is reasonably convincing – even though elements of present day “polite society” may well prefer this evidence not to become “generally known”.  The authors tell a story with many jaw-dropping episodes.

Among other things, the book systematically challenges the famous phrase from Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan that, absent a government, people would lead lives that were “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.  On the contrary, the book marshals evidence, direct and indirect, that pre-agricultural people could enjoy relatively long lives, with ample food, and a strong sense of community.  Key to this mode of existence was “fierce sharing”, in which everyone felt a strong obligation to share food within the group … and not only food.  The X-rated claim in the book is that the sharing extended to “parallel multi-male, multi-female sexual relationships”, which bolstered powerful community identities.  Monogamy is, therefore, far from being exclusively “natural”.  Evidence in support of this conclusion includes:

  • Comparisons to behaviour in bonobos and chimps – the apes which are our closest evolutionary cousins
  • The practice in several contemporary nomadic tribes, in which children are viewed as having many fathers
  • Various human anatomical features, copulatory behaviour, aspects of sperm wars, etc.

In this analysis, human sexual nature developed under one set of circumstances for several million years, until dramatic changes in relatively recent times with the advent of agriculture, cities, and widespread exclusive ownership.  Social philosophies (including religions) have sought to change the norms of behaviour, with mixed success.

I’ll leave the last words to Ryan and Jetha, from their online FAQ:

We’re not recommending anything other than knowledge, introspection, and honesty. In fact, as we say in the book, we’re not really sure what to do with this information ourselves.

1 May 2010

Costs of complexity: in healthcare, and in the mobile industry

Filed under: books, business model, disruption, healthcare, innovation, modularity, simplicity — David Wood @ 11:56 am

While indeed there are economies of scale, there are countervailing costs of complexity – the more product families produced in a plant, the higher the overhead burden rates.

That sentence comes from page 92 of “The Innovator’s Prescription: A disruptive solution for health care“, co-authored by Clayton Christensen, Jerome Grossman, and Jason Hwang.  Like all the books authored (or co-authored) by Christensen, the book is full of implications for fields outside the particularly industry being discussed.

In the case of this book, the subject matter is critically important in its own right: how can we find ways to allow technological breakthroughs to reduce the spiralling costs of healthcare?

In the book, the authors brilliantly extend and apply Christensen’s well-known ideas on disruptive change to the field of healthcare.  But the book should be recommended reading for anyone interested in either strategy or operational effectiveness in any hi-tech industry.  (It’s also recommended reading for anyone interested in the future of medicine – which probably includes all of us, since most of us can anticipate spending increasing amounts of time in hospitals or doctor’s surgeries as we become older.)

I’m still less than half way through reading this book, but the section I’ve just read seems to speak loudly to issues in the mobile industry, as well as to the healthcare industry.

It describes a manufacturing plant which was struggling with overhead costs.  At this plant, 6.2 dollars were spent in overhead expenses for every dollar spend on direct labour:

These overhead costs included not just utilities and depreciation, but the costs of scheduling, expediting, quality control, repair and rework, scrap maintenance, materials handling, accounting, computer systems, and so on.  Overhead comprised all costs that were not directly spent in making products.

The quality of products made at that plant was also causing concern:

About 15 percent of all overhead costs were created by the need to repair and rework products that failed in the field, or had been discovered by inspectors as faulty before shipment.

However, it didn’t appear to the manager that any money was being wasted:

The plant hadn’t been painted inside or out in 20 years.  The landscaping was now overrun by weeds.  The receptionist in the bare-bones lobby had been replaced long ago with a paper directory and a phone.  The manager had no secretarial assistance, and her gray World War II vintage steel desk was dented by a kick from some frustrated predecessor.

Nevertheless, this particular plant had considerably higher overhead burden rates than the other plants from the same company.  What was the difference?

The difference was in the complexity.  This particular plant was set up to cope with large numbers of different product designs, whereas the other plants (which had been created later) had been able to optimise for particular design families.

The original plant essentially had the value proposition,

We’ll make any product that anyone designs

In contrast, the newer plants had the following kind of value proposition:

If you need a product that can be made through one of these two sequences of operations and activities, we’ll do it for you at the lowest possible cost and the highest possible quality.

Further analysis, across a number of different plants, reached the following results:

Each time the scale of a plant doubled, holding the degree of pathway complexity constant, the overhead rate could be expected to fall by 15 percent.  So, for example, a plant that made two families and generated $40 million in sales would be expected to have an overhead burden ratio of about 2.85, while the burden rate for a plant making two families with $80 million in sales would be 15% lower (2.85 x 0.85 = 2.42).  But every time the number of families produced in a plant of a given scale doubled, the overhead burden rate soared 27 percent.  So if a two-pathway, $40 million plant accepted products that required two additional pathways, but that did not increase its sales volume, its overhead burden rate would increase by 2.85 x 1.27, to 3.62…

This is just one aspect of a long and fascinating analysis.  Modern day general purpose hospitals support huge numbers of different patient care pathways, so high overhead rates are inevitable.  The solution is to allow the formation of separate specialist units, where practitioners can then focus on iteratively optimising particular lines of healthcare.  We can already see this in firms that specialise in laser eye surgery, in hernia treatment, and so on.  Without these new units separating and removing some of the complexity of the original unit, it becomes harder and harder for innovation to take place.  The innovation becomes stifled under conflicting business models.  (I’m simplifying the argument here: please take a look at the book for the full picture.)

In short: reducing overhead costs isn’t just a matter of “eliminating obvious inefficiencies, spending less time on paperwork, etc”.  It often requires initially painful structural changes, in which overly complex multi-function units are simplified by the removal and separation of business lines and product pathways.  Only with the new, simplified set up – often involving new companies, and sometimes involving “creative destruction” – can disruptive innovations flourish.

Rising organisational complexity impacts the mobile industry too.  I’ve written about this before.  For example, in May last year I wrote an article “Platform strategy failure modes“:

The first failure mode is when a device manufacturer fails to have a strategy towards mobile software platforms.  In this case, the adage holds true that a failure to strategise is a strategy to fail.  A device manufacturer that simply “follows the wind” – picking platform P1 for device D1 because customer C1 expressed a preference for P1, picking platform P2 for device D2 because customer C2 expressed a preference for P2, etc – is going to find that the effort of interacting successfully with all these different platforms far exceeds their expectations.  Mobile software platforms require substantial investment from manufacturers, before the manufacturer can reap commercial rewards from these platforms.  (Getting a device ready to demo is one thing.  That can be relatively easy.  Getting a device approved to ship onto real networks – a device that is sufficiently differentiated to stand out from a crowd of lookalike devices – can take a lot longer.)

The second failure mode is similar to the first one.  It’s when a device manufacturer spreads itself  too thinly across multiple platforms.  In the previous case, the manufacturer ended up working with multiple platforms, without consciously planning that outcome.  In this case, the manufacturer knows what they are doing.  They reason to themselves as follows:

  • We are a highly competent company;
  • We can manage to work with (say) three significant mobile software platforms;
  • Other companies couldn’t cope with this diversification, but we are different.

But the outcome is the same as the previous case, even though different thinking gets the manufacturer into that predicament.  The root failure is, again, a failure to appreciate the scale and complexity of mobile software platforms.  These platforms can deliver tremendous value, but require significant ongoing skill and investment to yield that kind of result.

The third failure mode is when a manufacturer seeks re-use across several different mobile software platforms.  The idea is that components (whether at the application or system level) are developed in a platform-agnostic way, so they can fit into each platform equally well.

To be clear, this is a fine goal.  Done right, there are big dividends.  But my observation is that this strategy is hard to get right.  The strategy typically involves some kind of additional “platform independent layer”, that isolates the software in the component from the particular programming interfaces of the underlying platform.  However, this additional layer often introduces its own complications…

Seeking clever economies of scale is commendable.  But there often comes time when growing scale is bedevilled by growing complexity.  It’s as mentioned at the beginning of this article:

While indeed there are economies of scale, there are countervailing costs of complexity – the more product families produced in a plant, the higher the overhead burden rates.

Even more than a drive to scale, companies in the mobile space need a drive towards simplicity. That means organisational simplicity as well as product simplicity.

As I stated in my article “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity“:

The inherent complexity of present-day smartphones risks all kinds of bad outcomes:

  • Smartphone device creation projects may become time-consuming and delay-prone, and the smartphones themselves may compromise on quality in order to try to hit a fast-receding market window;
  • Smartphone application development may become difficult, as developers need to juggle different programming interfaces and optimisation methods;
  • Smartphone users may fail to find the functionality they believe is contained (somewhere!) within their handset, and having found that functionality, they may struggle to learn how to use it.

In short, smartphone system complexity risks impacting manufacturability, developability, and usability.  The number one issue for the mobile industry, arguably, is to constantly find better ways to tame this complexity.

The companies that are successfully addressing the complexity issue seem, on the whole, to be the ones on the rise in the mobile space.

Footnote: It’s a big claim, but it may well be true that of all the books on the subject of innovation in the last 20 years, Clayton’s Christensen’s writings are the most consistently important.  The subtitle of his first book, “The innovator’s dilemma”, is a reminder why: “When new technologies cause great firms to fail“.

10 March 2010

Speaking in Oxford: Far beyond smartphones

Filed under: disruption, futurist, Oxford — David Wood @ 9:32 am

Tomorrow evening (Thursday 11th March) I’ll be speaking in the Saskatchewan Room of Exeter College, Oxford, starting at 7pm.

I’ll be helping to lead a discussion at the recently formed “Oxford Transhumanists” group.

The event is described as follows on Facebook:

Far beyond smartphones

A transhumanist view of where the accelerating pace of technology is taking us

Technological improvements in fields such as semiconductors, software, AI, nanotech, and synthetic biology, over the next 20 years, open opportunities for radical changes in the human condition – at both the personal and societal levels.

Are these prospects a fantasy, or something to be feared, or something to be embraced?

This talk provides an introduction to disruptive but deeply important concepts such as artificial general intelligence, human rejuvenation engineering, intelligence augmentation, exponentially accelerated change, and the technological singularity.

These concepts involve large potential downsides as well as large potential upsides. It’s critical that we anticipate these issues ahead of time.

During the meeting, there will be plenty of opportunity to raise questions and to contribute to the debate.

In case you happen to be near Oxford that evening, and the above topics interest you, feel free to join the meeting!

28 December 2009

Wired’s top 7 mobile disruptions of 2009

Filed under: change, disruption, futurist — David Wood @ 9:00 pm

Wired.com today provide their list of the “top 7 disruptions” for mobile in 2009:

  1. Google Stack
  2. Mobile App Stores
  3. HTML5
  4. A New FCC
  5. Streaming Music
  6. The Real-Time Web
  7. Augmented Reality

You can read the details on Wired.com.  It’s a pretty good list: all the items included are important.

To nitpick, it’s not clear that they all count as “disruptive” rather than “evolutionary”.  And it seems at least some of the items are on the list because of what they’ll accomplish in 2010 rather than in 2009.   Never mind.

Wired asks: “What did we miss?”

With the same two provisos as before, I offer four additional candidates for inclusion:

1.) Mobile maps

Mobile maps seem to be getting better and better, and to be used more and more widely.  With 3D as well as 2D, with improved routing, and with plug-in integration from numerous third party apps and services, this trend is likely to continue.

2.) Mobile payments

From the perspective of the so-called developed world, use of mobile phones in payment transactions still seems relatively unexciting.  But from the perspective of the developing world – in countries where bank accounts and credit cards are comparatively scarce – mobile payments are already making a decisive difference.

3.) User Experience

For a while, technologists could tell themselves that good user experience (UX) was an optional extra, necessary for some mobile products but not for all.  This view is fading fast.  It’s now clear that users have become aware that good UX is possible on mobile – even for complex services – and they have an increasingly dim view of any mobile product that score weakly on UX.

4.) Open Source

It’s still early days for people to see the benefits of applying open source methods to creating mobile tools, applications, services, middleware, and (last but far from least) to improve the underlying platform.  But the transformational potential is enormous  – both in the improvements that end users will notice, and in the skillsets best suited to take advantage of the new innovation engine.  For further discussion of these points, see my recent presentation “Open ecosystems: a good thing?” (PDF) to the Cambridge Wireless network.

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