dw2

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.

Actions

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.

LF banner narrow

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

LFS Banner

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 December 2013

A muscular new kid on the block

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man. – George Bernard Shaw, “Man and Superman”, 1903

How far should we go, to be the best that we can be? If personal greatness lies at the other side of an intense effort, should we strain every muscle, muster every personal resource, and vigorously push away every distraction, in order to seize that crown?

For example, should we accept the “Transhumanist Wager”, as dramatically portrayed in the trenchant new novel of the same name by former world-traveller and award-winning National Geographic journalist Zoltan Istvan?

The-Transhumanist-Wager-e1368458616371The book, which hit the #1 best-seller spot in Amazon a few months back (in both Philosophy and Science Fiction Visionary and Metaphysical), is a vivid call to action. It’s a call for people around the world to waken up to the imminent potential for a radical improvement in the human condition. The improvement can be earned by harnessing and accelerating ongoing developments in medicine, engineering, and technology.

However, in the nightmare near-future world portrayed in the novel, that improvement will require an intense effort, since the seats of global power are resolutely opposed to any potential for dramatic, human-driven improvement.

For example, under the influence of what the novel calls “a rogue group of right-wing politicians – those who considered Sunday church a central part of their existence”, the US government passes sweeping laws forbidding experimentation in stem cell therapies, genetic reprogramming, human enhancement, and life-extension. Istvan puts into the mouth of the President of the United States the soporific remarks, “Good old-fashioned, basic health, that’s what the people really want”.

That ambition sounds… reasonable, yet it falls far, far short of the potential envisioned by the hero of the novel, Jethro Knights. He has much bigger sights: “My words define a coming new species”.

Anyone reading “The Transhumanist Wager” is likely to have strong reactions on encountering Jethro Knights. Knights may become one of the grand characters of modern fiction. He challenges each of us to rethink how far each of us would be prepared to go, to become the best that we can be. Knights brazenly talks about himself as an “omnipotender”: “an unyielding individual whose central aim is to contend for as much power and advancement as he could achieve, and whose immediate goal is to transcend his human biological limitations in order to reach a permanent sentience”. Throughout the novel, his actions match his muscular philosophy. I read it with a growing mix of horror and, yes, admiration.

The word “wager” in the book’s title recalls the infamous “Pascal’s Wager”. French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal argued in the 17th century that since there was a possibility that God existed, with the power to bestow on believers “an infinitely happy life”, we should take steps to acquire the habit of Christian belief: the potential upsides far outweigh any downsides. Belief in God, according to Pascal, was a wager worth taking. However, critics have long observed that there are many “possible” Gods, each of whom seems to demand different actions as indicators of our faith; the wager alone is no guide as to the steps that should be taken to increase the chance of “an infinitely happy life”.

The transhumanist wager observes, analogously, that there is a possibility that in the not-too-distant future, science and technology will have the ability to bestow on people, if not an “infinitely happy” life, a lifestyle that is hugely expanded and enhanced compared to today’s. Jethro Knights expounds the consequence:

The wager… states that if you love life, you will safeguard that life, and strive to extend and improve it for as long as possible. Anything else you do while alive, any other opinion you have, any other choice you make to not safeguard, extend, and improve that life, is a betrayal of that life…

This is a historic choice that each man and woman on the planet must make. The choice shall determine the rest of your life and the course of civilisation.

Knights is quite the orator – and quite a fighter, too. As the novel proceeds to its climactic conclusion, Knights assembles like-minded scientists and engineers who create a formidable arsenal of remote-controlled weaponry – robots that can use state-of-the-art artificial intelligence to devastating effect. The military stance is needed, in response to the armed forces which the world’s governments are threatening to deploy against the maverick new entity of “Transhumania” – a newly built seasteading nation of transhumanists – which Knights now leads.

It is no surprise that critics of the book have compared Jethro Knights to Joseph Stalin. These criticisms come from within the real-world transhumanist community that Istvan might have counted to rally around the book’s call to action. Perhaps these potential allies were irritated by the description of mainstream transhumanists that appears in the pages of the book: “an undersized group of soft-spoken individuals, mostly aged nerds trying to gently reshape their world… their chivalry and sense of embedded social decency was their downfall”.

I see four possible objections to the wager that lies at the heart of this novel – and to any similar single-minded undertaking to commit whole-heartedly to a methodology of personal transcendence:

  1. First, by misguidedly pursing “greatness”, we might lose grasp of the “goodness” we already possess, and end up in a much worse place than before.
  2. Second, instead of just thinking about our own personal advancement, we have important obligations to our families, loved ones, and our broader social communities.
  3. Third, by being overly strident, we may antagonise people and organisations who could otherwise be our allies.
  4. Fourth, we may be wrong in our analysis of the possibility for future transcendence; for example, faith in science and technology may be misplaced.

Knights confronts each of these objections, amidst the drama to establish Transhumania as his preferred vehicle to human transcendence. Along the way, the novel features other richly exaggerated larger-than-life characters embodying key human concerns – love, spirituality, religion, and politics – who act as counters to Knights’ own headstrong ambitions. Zoe Bach, the mystically inclined physician who keeps spirituality on the agenda, surely speaks for many readers when she tells Knights she understands his logic but sees his methods as not being realistic – and as “not feeling right”.

The book has elements that highlight an uplifting vision for what science and technology can achieve, freed from the meddling interference of those who complain that “humans shouldn’t play at being God”. But it also serves as an awful warning for what might ensue if forces of religious fundamentalism and bio-conservatism become increasingly antagonised, rather than inspired, by the transformational potential of that science and technology.

My takeaway from the book, therefore, is to work harder at building bridges, rather than burning them. We will surely need these bridges in the troubled times that lie ahead. That is my own “transhumanist wager”.

Postscripts

1.) A version of the above essay currently features on the front-page of the online Psychology Today magazine.

DW on front cover2.) If you can be in San Francisco on 1st February, you can see Zoltan Istvan, the author of the Transhumanist Wager, speaking the conference “Transhuman Visions” organised by Brighter Brains:

Transhuman-Visions2-791x10243.) I recently chaired a London Futurists Hangout On Air discussion on The Transhumanist Wager. The panelists, in addition to Zoltan Istvan, were Giulio PriscoRick Searle, and Chris T. Armstrong. You can view the recording of the discussion below. But to avoid spoiling your enjoyment of the book, you might prefer to read the book before you delve into the discussion.

30 September 2013

Questions about Hangouts on Air

Filed under: collaboration, Google, Hangout On Air, intelligence — David Wood @ 11:05 pm

HOA CaptureI’m still learning about how to get the best results from Google Hangouts On Air – events that are broadcast live over the Internet.

On Sunday, I hosted a Hangout On Air which ran pretty well. However, several features of the experience were disappointing.

Here, I’m setting aside questions about what the panellists said. It was a fascinating discussion, but in this blogpost, I want to ask some questions, instead, about the technology involved in creating and broadcasting the Hangout On Air. That was the disappointing part.

If anyone reading this can answer my questions, I’ll be most grateful.

If you take a quick look at the beginning of the YouTube video of the broadcast, you’ll immediately see the first problem I experienced:

The problem was that the video uplink from my own laptop didn’t get included in the event. Instead of what I thought I was contributing to the event, the event just showed my G+ avatar (a static picture of my face). That was in contrast to situation for the other four participants.

When I looked at the Hangout On Air window on my laptop as I was hosting the call, it showed me a stream of images recorded by my webcam. It also showed, at other times, slides which I was briefly presenting. That’s what I saw, but no-one else saw it. None of these displays made it into the broadcast version.

Happily, the audio feed from my laptop did reach the broadcast version. But not the video.

As it happens, I think that particular problem was “just one of those things”, which happen rarely, and in circumstances that are difficult to reproduce. I doubt this problem will recur in this way, the next time I do such an event. I believe that the software system on my laptop simply got itself into a muddle. I saw other evidence for the software being in difficulty:

  • As the event was taking place, I got notifications that people had added me to their G+ circles. But when I clicked on these notifications, to consider reciprocally adding these people into my own circles, I got an error message, saying something like “Cannot retrieve circle status info at this time”
  • After the event had finished, I tried to reboot my laptop. The shutdown hung, twice. First, it hung with a most unusual message, “Waiting for explorer.exe – playing logoff sound”. Second, after I accepted the suggestion from the shutdown dialog to close down that app regardless, the laptop hung indefinitely in the final “shutting down” display. In the end, I pressed the hardware reset button.

That muddle shouldn’t have arisen, especially as I had taken the precaution of rebooting my laptop some 30 minutes before the event was due to start. But it did. However, what made things worse is that I only became aware of this issue once the Hangout had already started its broadcast phase.

At that time, the other panellists told me they couldn’t see any live video from my laptop. I tried various quick fixes (e.g. switching my webcam off and on), but to no avail. I also wondered whether I was suffering from a local bandwidth restriction, but I had reset my broadband router 30 minutes before the call started, and I was the only person in my house at that time.

Exit the hangout and re-enter it, was the next suggestion offered to me. Maybe that will fix things.

But this is where I see a deeper issue with the way Hangouts On Air presently work.

From my experience (though I’ll be delighted if people can tell me otherwise), when the person who started the Hangout On Air exits the event, the whole event shuts down. It’s therefore different from if any of the other panellists exits and rejoins. The other panellists can exit and rejoin without terminating the event. Not so for the host.

By the time I found out about the video uplink problem, I had already published the URL of where the YouTube of the Hangout would be broadcast. After starting the Hangout On Air (but before discovering the problem with my video feed), I had copied this URL to quite a few different places on social media – Meetup.com, Facebook, etc. I knew that people were already watching the event. If I exited the Hangout, to see if that would get the video uplink working again, we would have had to start a new Hangout, which would have had a different YouTube URL. I would have had to manually update all these social networking pages.

I can imagine two possible solutions to this – but I don’t think either are available yet, right?

  1. There may be a mechanism for the host to leave the Hangout On Air, without that Hangout terminating
  2. There may be a mechanism for something like a URL redirector to work, even for a second Hangout instance, which replaces a previous instance. The same URL would work for two different Hangouts.

Incidentally, in terms of URLs for the Hangout, note that there are at least three different such URLs:

  1. The URL of the “inside” of the Hangout, which the host can share with panellists to allow them to join it
  2. The URL of the Google+ window where the Hangout broadcast runs
  3. The URL of the YouTube window where the Hangout broadcast runs.

As far as I know, all three URLs change when a Hangout is terminated and restarted. What’s more, #1 and #3 are created when the Hangout starts, even before it switches into Broadcast mode, whereas #2 is only available when the host presses the “Start broadcasting” button.

In short, it’s a pretty complicated state of affairs. I presume that Google are hard at work to simplify matters…

To look on the positive side, one outcome that I feared (as I mentioned previously) didn’t come to pass. That outcome was my laptop over-heating. Instead, according to the CPU temperature monitor widget that I run on my laptop, the temperature remained comfortable throughout (reaching the 70s Centigrade, but staying well short of the 100 degree value which triggers an instant shutdown). I imagine that, because no video uplink was taking place, there was no strong CPU load on my laptop. I’ll have to wait to see what happens next time.

After all, over-heating is another example of something that might cause a Hangout host to want to temporarily exit the Hangout, without bringing the whole event to a premature end. There are surely other examples as well.

27 September 2013

Technology for improved collaborative intelligence

Filed under: collaboration, Hangout On Air, intelligence, Symbian — David Wood @ 1:02 pm

Interested in experiences in using Google Hangout On Air, as a tool to improve collaborative intelligence? Read on.

Google’s Page Rank algorithm. The Wikipedia editing process. Ranking of reviewers on Amazon.com. These are all examples of technology helping to elevate useful information above the cacophony of background noise.

To be clear, in such examples, insight doesn’t just come from technology. It comes from a combination of good tools plus good human judgement – aided by processes that typically evolve over several iterations.

For London Futurists, I’m keen to take advantage of technology to accelerate the analysis of radical scenarios for the next 3-40 years. One issue is that the general field of futurism has its own fair share of background noise:

  • Articles that are full of hype or sensationalism
  • Articles motivated by commercial concerns, with questionable factual accuracy
  • Articles intended for entertainment purposes, but which end up overly influencing what people think.

Lots of people like to ramp up the gas while talking about  the future, but that doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about.

I’ve generally been pleased with the quality of discussion in London Futurists real-life meetings, held (for example) in Birkbeck College, Central London. The speaker contributions in these meetings are important, but the audience members collectively raise a lot of good points too. I do my best to ‘referee’ the discussions, in a way that a range of opinions have a chance to be aired. But there have been three main limitations with these meetups:

  1. Meetings often come to an end well before we’ve got to the bottom of some of the key lines of discussion
  2. The insights from individual meetings can sometimes fail to be taken forward into subsequent meetings – where the audience members are different
  3. Attendance is limited to people who live near to London, and who have no other commitments when the meetup is taking place.

These limitations won’t disappear overnight, but I have plans to address them in stages.

I’ve explained some of my plans in the following video, which is also available at http://londonfuturists.com/2013/08/30/introducing-london-futurists-academy/.

As the video says, I want to be able to take advantage of the same kind of positive feedback cycles that have accelerated the progress of technology, in order to accelerate in a similar way the generation of reliable insight about the future.

As a practical step, I’m increasingly experimenting with Google Hangouts, as a way to:

  • Involve a wider audience in our discussions
  • Preserve an online record of the discussions
  • Find out, in real-time, which questions the audience collectively believes should be injected into a conversation.

In case it helps others who are also considering the usage of Google Hangouts, here’s what I’ve found out so far.

The Hangouts are a multi-person video conference call. Participants have to log in via one of their Google accounts. They also have to download an app, inside Google Plus, before they can take part in the Hangout. Google Plus will prompt them to download the app.

The Hangout system comes with its own set of plug-in apps. For example, participants can share their screens, which is a handy way of showing some PowerPoint slides that back up a point you are making.

By default, the maximum number of attendees is 10. However, if the person who starts the Hangout has a corporate account with Google (as I have, for my company Delta Wisdom), that number can increase to 15.

For London Futurists meetings, instead of a standard “Hangout”, I’m using “Hangouts On Air” (sometime abbreviated as ‘HOA’). These are started from within their own section of the Google Plus page:

  • The person starting the call (the “moderator”) creates the session in a “pre-broadcast” state, in which he/she can invite a number of participants
  • At this stage, the URL is generated, for where the Hangout can be viewed on YouTube; this vital piece of information can be published on social networking sites
  • The moderator can also take some other pre-broadcast steps, such as enabling the “Questions” app (further mentioned below)
  • When everyone is ready, the moderator presses the big red “Start broadcast” button
  • A wide audience is now able to watch the panellists discussion via the YouTube URL, or on the Google Plus page of the moderator.

For example, there will be a London Futurists HOA this Sunday, starting 7pm UK time. There will be four panellists, plus me. The subject is “Projects to accelerate radical healthy longevity”. The details are here. The event will be visible on my own Google Plus page, https://plus.google.com/104281987519632639471/posts. Note that viewers don’t need to be included in any of the Circles of the moderator.

As the HOA proceeds, viewers typically see the current speaker at the top of the screen, along with the other panellists in smaller windows below. The moderator has the option to temporarily “lock” one of the participants into the top area, so that their screen has prominence at that time, even though other panellists might be speaking.

It’s good practice for panellists to mute their microphones when they’re not speaking. That kind of thing is useful for the panellists to rehearse with the moderator before the call itself (perhaps in a brief preview call several days earlier), in order to debug connectivity issues, the installation of apps, camera positioning, lighting, and so forth. Incidentally, it’s best if there’s a source of lighting in front of the speaker, rather than behind.

How does the audience get to interact with the panellists in real-time? Here’s where things become interesting.

First, anyone watching via YouTube can place text comments under the YouTube window. These comments are visible to the panellists:

  • Either by keeping an eye on the same YouTube window
  • Or, simpler, within the “Comment Tracker” tab of the “Hangout Toolbox” app that is available inside the Hangout window.

However, people viewing the HOA via Google Plus have a different option. Provided the moderator has enabled this feature before the start of the broadcast, viewers will see a big button inviting them to ask a question, in a text box. They will also be able to view the questions that other viewers have submitted, and to give a ‘+1’ thumbs up endorsement.

In real-time, the panellists can see this list of questions appear on their screens, inside the Hangout window, along with an indication of how many ‘+1′ votes they have received. Ideally, this will help the moderator to pick the best question for the panel to address next. It’s a small step in the direction of greater collaborative intelligence.

At time of writing, I don’t think there’s an option for viewers to downvote each others’ questions. However, there is an option to declare that a question is spam. I expect the Google team behind HOA will be making further enhancements before long.

This Questions app is itself an example of how the Google HOA technology is improving. The last time I ran a HOA for London Futurists, the Questions apps wasn’t available, so we just used the YouTube comments mechanism. One of the panellists for that call, David Orban, suggested I should look into another tool, called Google Moderator, for use in a subsequent occasion. I took a look, and liked what I saw, and my initial announcement of my next HOA (the one happening on Sunday) mentioned that I would be using Google Moderator. However, as I said, technology moves on quickly. Giulio Prisco drew my attention to the recently announced Questions feature of the HOA itself – a feature that had previously been in restricted test usage, but which is now available for all users of HOA. So we’ll be using that instead of Google Moderator (which is a rather old tool, without any direct connection into the Hangout app).

The overall HOA system is still new, and it’s not without its issues. For example, panellists have a lot of different places they might need to look, as the call progresses:

  • The “YouTube comment tracker” screen is mutually exclusive from the “Questions” screen: panellists can only have one of these visible to them at a time
  • These screens are in turn mutually exclusive from a text chat window which the panellists can use to chat amongst themselves (for example, to coordinate who will be speaking next) while one of the other panellists is speaking.

Second – and this is what currently makes me most apprehensive – the system seems to put a lot of load on my laptop, whenever I am the moderator of a HOA. I’ve actually seen something similar whenever my laptop is generating video for any long call. The laptop gets hotter and hotter as time progresses, and might even cut out altogether – as happened one hour into the last London Futurists HOA (see the end of this video).

Unfortunately, when the moderator’s PC loses connection to the HOA, the HOA itself seems to shut down (after a short delay, to allow quick reconnections). If this happens again on Sunday, we’ll restart the HOA as soon as possible. The “part two” will be visible on the same Google Plus page, but the corresponding YouTube video will have its own, brand new URL.

Since the last occurrence of my laptop overheating during a video call, I’ve had a new motherboard installed, plus a new hard disk (as the old one was giving some diagnostic errors), and had all the dust cleaned out of my system. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for this Sunday. Technology brings its challenges as well as many opportunities…

Footnote: This threat of over-heating reminds me of a talk I gave on several occasions as long ago as 2006, while at Symbian, about “Horsemen of the apocalypse”, including fire. Here’s a brief extract:

Standing in opposition to the potential for swift continuing increase in mobile technology, however, we face a series of major challenges. I call them “horsemen of the apocalypse”.  They include fire, flood, plague, and warfare.

“Fire” is the challenge of coping with the heat generated by batteries running ever faster. Alas, batteries don’t follow Moore’s Law. As users demand more work from their smartphones, their battery lifetimes will tend to plummet. The solution involves close inter-working of new hardware technology (including multi-core processors) and highly sophisticated low-level software. Together, this can reduce the voltage required by the hardware, and the device can avoid catching fire as it performs its incredible calculations…

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.