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20 February 2013

The world’s most eminent sociologist highlights the technological singularity

It’s not every day that the world’s most eminent sociologist reveals himself as having an intense interest in the Technological Singularity, and urges that “Everyone should read the books of Ray Kurzweil”. That’s what happened this evening.

The speaker in question was Lord Anthony Giddens, one of whose many claims to fame is his description as “Tony Blair’s guru”.

His biography states that, “According to Google Scholar, he is the most widely cited sociologist in the world today.”

In support of that claim, a 2009 article in the Times Higher Education supplement notes the following:

Giddens trumps Marx…

A list published today by Times Higher Education reveals the most-cited academic authors of books in the humanities…

As one of the world’s pre-eminent sociologists, Anthony Giddens, the Labour peer and former director of the London School of Economics, will be used to academic accolades.

But even he may be pleased to hear that his books are cited more often than those of iconic thinkers such as Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx.

Lord Giddens, now emeritus professor at LSE and a life fellow at King’s College, Cambridge, is the fifth most-referenced author of books in the humanities, according to the list produced by scientific data analysts Thomson Reuters.

The only living scholar ranked higher is Albert Bandura, the Canadian psychologist and pioneer of social learning theory at Stanford University…

Freud enters the list in 11th place. The American linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky, who is based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and whose political books have a broader readership than some of his peers in the list, is 15th…

Lord Giddens is now 75 years old. Earlier this evening, I saw for myself evidence of his remarkable calibre. He gave an hour-long lecture in front of a packed audience at the London School of Economics, without any notes or slides, and without any hesitation, deviation, or verbal infelicity. Throughout, his remarks bristled with compelling ideas. He was equally competent – and equally fluent – when it came to the question-and-answer portion of the event.

LSE Events

The lecture was entitled “Off the edge of history: the world in the 21st century”. From its description on the LSE website, I had already identified it as relevant to many of the themes that I seek to have discussed in the series of London Futurists meetups that I chair:

The risks we face, and the opportunities we have, in the 21st century are in many respects quite different from those experienced in earlier periods of history. How should we analyse and respond to such a world? What is a rational balance of optimism and pessimism? How can we plan for a future that seems to elude our grasp and in some ways is imponderable?

As the lecture proceeded, I was very pleasantly impressed by the sequence of ideas. I append here a lightly edited copy of the verbatim notes I took on my Psion Series 5mx, supplemented by a few additions from the #LSEGiddens tweet stream. Added afterwards: the LSE has made a podcast available of the talk.

My rough notes from the talk follow… (text in italics are my parenthetical comments)

This large lecture room is completely full, twenty minutes before the lecture is due to start. I’m glad I arrived early!

Today’s topic is work in progress – he’s writing a book on the same topic, “Off the edge of history”.

  • Note this is a very different thesis from “the end of history”.

His starting point is in the subject of geology – a long way from sociology. He’s been working on climate change for the last seven years. It’s his first time to work so closely with scientists.

Geologists tend to call the present age “the Holocene age” – the last 12,000 years. But a geologist called Paul Crutzen recommended that we should use a different term for the last 200 years or so – we’re now in the Anthropocene age:

  • In this period, human activity strongly influences nature and the environment
  • This re-orients and restructures the world of geology
  • A great deal of what used to be natural, is natural no longer
  • Human beings are invading nature, in a way that has no precedent
  • Even some apparently natural catastrophes, like tsunamis and volcanoes, might be linked to impacts from humans.

We have continuities from previous history (of course), but so many things are different nowadays. One example is the impacts of new forms of biological threat. Disease organisms have skipped from animals to human beings. New disease organisms are being synthesised.

There are threats facing us, which are in no ways extensions of previous threats.

For example, what is the Internet doing to the world? Is it a gigantic new mind? Are you using the mobile phone, or is the mobile phone using you? There’s no parallel from previous periods. Globally connected electronic communications are fundamentally different from what went before.

When you are dealing with risks you’ve never experienced before, you can’t measure them. You’ll only know for sure when it’s too late. We’re on the edge of history because we are dealing with risks we have never faced before.

Just as we are invading nature, we are invading human nature in a way that’s unprecedented.

Do you know about the Singularity? (A smattering of people in the audience raise their hands.) It’s mind-blowing. You should find out about it:

  • It’s based on a mathematical concept
  • It’s accelerating processes of growth, rapidly disappearing to a far off point very different from today.

Everyone should read the books of Ray Kurzweil – who has recently become an Engineering Director at Google.

Kurzweil’s book makes it clear that:

  • Within our lifetimes, human beings will no longer be human beings
  • There are multiple accelerating rates of change in several different disciplines
  • The three main disciplines contributing to the singularity are nanotech, AI, and biotech
  • All are transforming our understanding of the human body and, more importantly, the human mind
  • This is described by the “Law of accelerating returns”
  • Progress is not just linear but geometrical.

This book opens our minds to multiple possibilities of what it means to be human, as technology penetrates us.

Nanotech is like humans playing God:

  • It’s a level below DNA
  • We can use it to rebuild many parts of the human body, and other artefacts in the world.

Kurzweil states that human beings will develop intelligence which is 100x higher than at present:

  • Because of merging of human bodies with computers
  • Because of the impact of nanotech.

Kurzweil gives this advice: if you are relatively young: live long, in order to live forever:

  • Immortality is no longer a religious concept, it’s now a tangible prospect
  • It could happen in the next 20-40 years.

This is a fantastic expansion of what it means to be human. Importantly, it’s a spread of opportunities and risk.

These were religious notions before. Now we have the real possibility of apocalypse – we’ve had it since the 1950s, when the first thermonuclear weapons were invented. The possibility of immortality has become real too.

We don’t know how to chart these possibilities. None of us know how to fill in that gap.

What science fiction writers were writing 20 years ago, is now in the newspapers everyday. Reading from the Guardian from a couple of days ago:

Paralysed people could get movement back through thought control

Brain implant could allow people to ‘feel’ the presence of infrared light and one day be used to move artificial limbs

Scientists have moved closer to allowing paralysed people to control artificial limbs with their thoughts following a breakthrough in technology…

…part of a series of sessions on advances in brain-machine interfaces, at which other scientists presented a bionic hand that could connect directly to the nerves in a person’s arm and provide sensory feedback of what they were holding.

Until now, neurological prosthetics have largely been demonstrated as a way to restore a loss of function. Last year, a 58-year-old woman who had become paralysed after a stroke demonstrated that she could use a robotic arm to bring a cup of coffee to her mouth and take a sip, just by thinking about it…

In the future…  it might be possible to use prosthetic devices to restore vision – for example, if a person’s visual cortex had been damaged – by training a different part of the brain to process the information.

Or you could even augment normal brain function in non-invasive ways to deliver the information.

We could learn to detect other sorts of signals that we normally don’t see or experience; the perceptual range could increase.

These things are real; these things are happening. There is a kind of geometric advance.

The literature of social scientists has a big division here, between doomsday thinkers and optimists, with respected thinkers in both camps.

Sir Martin Rees is example of first category. He wrote a book called “Our final century”:

  • It examines forms of risk that could destroy our society
  • Climate change is a huge existential risk – most people aren’t aware of it
  • Nanotech is another existential risk – grey goo scenario
  • We also have lots of weaponry: drones circulating above the world even as we speak
  • Most previous civilisations have ended in disaster – they subverted themselves
  • For the first time, we have a civilisation on a global scale
  • It could well be our final century.

Optimists include Matt Ridley, a businessman turned scientist, and author of the book “The rational optimist”:

  • Over the course of human civilisation there is progress – including progress in culture, and medical advances.

This is a big division. How do we sort this out? His view: it’s not possible to decide. We need to recognise that we live in a “high opportunity, high risk society”:

  • The level of opportunity and level of risk are both much higher than before
  • But risk and opportunity always intertwine
  • “In every risk there’s an opportunity…” and vice versa
  • We must be aware of the twists and tangles of risk and opportunity – their interpenetration.

Studying this area has led him to change some of his views from before:

  • He now sees the goal of sustainability as a harder thing than before
  • Living within our limits makes sense, but we no longer know what our limits are
  • We have to respect limits, but also recognise that limits can be changed.

For example, could we regard a world population of 9 billion people as an opportunity, rather than just a risk?

  • It would lead us to put lots more focus on food innovation, blue sky tech for agriculture, social reform, etc – all good things.

A few points to help us sort things out:

  1. One must never avoid risk – we live in a world subject to extreme system risk; we mustn’t live in denial of risk in our personal life (like denying the risks of smoking or riding motor cycles) or at an civilisational level
  2. We have to think about the future in a very different way, because the future has become opaque to us; the enlightenment thought was that we would march in and make sense of history (Marx had similar thoughts), but it turns out that the future is actually opaque – for our personal lives too as well as society (he wonders whether the EU will still exist by the time he finishes his book on the future of the EU!)
  3. We’ll have to learn to backcast rather than forecast – to borrow an idea from the study of climate change. We have to think ahead, and then think back.

This project is the grand task of social sciences in the 21st century.

One more example: the possibility of re-shoring of jobs in the US and EU:

  • 3D printing is an unbelievable technological invention
  • 3D printers can already print shoes
  • A printer in an MIT lab can print whole systems – eg in due course a plane which will fly directly out of the computer
  • This will likely produce a revolution in manufacturing – many, many implications.

Final rhetorical question: As we confront this world, should we be pessimists or optimists? This is the same question he used to consider, at the end of the talks he used to give on climate change.

His answer: we should bracket out that opposition; it’s much more important to be rational than either pessimist or optimist:

  • Compare the case of someone with very serious cancer – they need more than wishful thinking. Need rational underpinning of optimism and/or pessimism.

Resounding applause from the audience. Then commence questions and answers.

Q: Are today’s governance structures, at local and national levels, fit to deal with these issues?

A: No. For example, the he European Union has proved not to be the vanguard of global governance that we hoped it would be. Climate change is another clear example: twenty years of UN meetings with no useful outcome whatsoever.

Q: Are our human cognitive powers capable to deal with these problems? Is there a role for technology to assist our cognitive powers?

A: Our human powers are facing a pretty difficult challenge. It’s human nature to put off what we don’t have to do today. Like 16 years taking up smoking who can’t really see themselves being 40. Maybe a supermind might be more effective.

Q: Although he has given examples where current governance models are failing, are there any bright spots of hope for governance? (The questioner in this case was me.)

A: There are some hopeful signs for economic governance. Surely bankers will not get away with what they’ve done. Movement to address tax havens (“onslaught”) – bring the money back as well as bringing the jobs back. Will require global co-operation. Nuclear proliferation (Iran, Israel) is as dangerous as climate change. The international community has done quite well with non-proliferation, but it only takes one nuclear war for things to go terribly wrong.

Q: What practical advice would he give to the Prime Minister (or to Ed Miliband)?

A: He supports Ed Miliband trying to restructure capitalism; there are similar moves happening in the US too. However, with global issues like these, any individual prime minister is limited in his influence. For better or for worse, Ray Kurzweil has more influence than any politician!

(Which is a remarkable thing to say, for someone who used to work so closely with Prime Minister Tony Blair…)

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13 September 2010

Accelerating Nokia’s renewal

Filed under: leadership, Nokia, openness, software management, time to market, urgency, usability — David Wood @ 8:29 pm

“The time is right to accelerate the company’s renewal” – Jorma Ollila, Chairman of the Nokia Board of Directors, 10 Sept 2010

I’ve been a keen Nokia watcher since late 1996, when a group of senior managers from Nokia visited Psion’s offices in Sentinel House, near Edgware Road station in London.  These managers were looking for a mobile operating system to power new generations of devices that would in time come to be called smartphones.

From my observations, I fairly soon realised that Nokia had world-class operating practice.  At the time, they were “one of the big three” – along with Motorola and Ericsson.  These three companies had roughly the same mobile phone market share – sometimes with one doing a little better, sometimes with another doing a little better.  But the practices I was able to watch at close quarters, over more than a decade, drove Nokia’s position ever higher.  People stopped talking about “the big three” and recognised Nokia as being in a league of its own.

In recent times, of course, this market dominance has taken a major hit.  Unit volume sales continue high, but the proportion of mobile industry profits won by Nokia has seen significant decline, in the face of new competition.  It’s no surprise that Nokia’s Chairman, Jorma Ollila, has declared the need to accelerate the company’s renewal.

Following the dramatic appointment earlier this week of a new CEO, Stephen Elop, I’ve already been asked on many occasions what advice I would offer the new CEO.  Here’s what I would say:

1. Ensure faster software execution – by improving software process quality

Delays in Nokia’s releases – both platform releases and product releases – mean that market windows are missed.  Nokia’s lengthy release lifecycles compare poorly to what more nimble competitors are achieving.

Paradoxically, the way to achieve faster release cycles is not to focus on faster release cycles.  The best way to ensure customer satisfaction and predictable delivery, is, counter-intuitively, to focus more on software quality, interim customer feedback, agile project management, self-motivated teams, and general principles of excellence in software development, than on schedule management itself.

It’s in line with what software process expert Steve McConnell says,

  • IBM discovered 20 years ago that projects that focused on attaining the shortest schedules had high frequencies of cost and schedule overruns;
  • Projects that focused on achieving high quality had the best schedules and the highest productivities.

The experience of Symbian Software Ltd over many years bears out the same conclusion. The more we in Symbian Ltd focused on achieving high quality, the better we became with both schedule management and internal developer productivity.

Aside: see this previous blogpost for the argument that

In a company whose culture puts a strong emphasis upon fulfilling commitments and never missing deadlines, the agreed schedules are often built from estimations up to twice as long as the individually most likely outcome, and even so, they often miss even these extended deadlines…

2. Recognise that quality trumps quantity

Large product development teams risk falling foul of Brooks’s Law: Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.  In other words, too many cooks spoil the broth.  Each new person, or each new team, introduces new relationships that need to be navigated and managed.  More and more effort ends up in communications and bureaucracy, rather than in “real work”.

Large product development teams can also suffer from a diminution of individual quality.  This is summed up in the saying,

A-grade people hire A-grade people to work for them, but B-grade people hire C-grade people to work for them.

Related to this, in large organisations, is the Peter Principle:

In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to their level of incompetence.

Former Nokia executive Juhani Risku recently gave a lengthy interview to The Register.  Andrew Orlowski noted the following:

One phrase repeatedly came up in our conversation: The Peter Principle. This is the rule by which people are promoted to their own level of incompetence. Many, but not all of Nokia’s executives have attained this goal, claims Risku.

One thing that does seem to be true is that Nokia’s product development teams are larger than comparable teams in other companies.  Nokia’s new CEO needs to ensure that the organisation is simplified and make more effective.  However, in the process, he should seek to retain the true world-class performers and teams in the company he is inheriting.  This will require wise discrimination – and an inspired choice of trusted advisors.

3. Identify and enable people with powerful product vision

A mediocre product delivered quickly is better than a mediocre product delivered late.  But even better is when the development process results in a product with great user appeal.

The principle of “less is more” applies here.  A product that delivers 50% of the functionality, superbly implemented, is likely to outsell a product that has 100% of the functionality but a whole cluster of usability issues.  (And the former product will almost certainly generate better public reaction.)

That’s why a relentless focus on product design is needed.  Companies like RIM and Apple have powerful product designers who are able to articulate and then boldly defend their conceptions for appealing new products – all the way through to these products reaching the market.  Although these great designers are sensitive to feedback from users, they don’t allow their core product vision to be diluted by numerous “nice ideas” that complicate the execution of the core tasks.

Nokia’s new CEO needs to identify individuals (from either inside or outside the existing organisation) who can carry out this task for Nokia’s new products.  Then he needs to enable these individuals to succeed.

For a compelling account of how Jeff Hawkins acted with this kind single-minded focus on a “simply great product” at Palm, I recommend the book “Piloting Palm: The Inside Story of Palm, Handspring and the Birth of the Billion Dollar Handheld Industry” by Andrea Butter and David Pogue.

4. Build the absorptive capacity that will allow Nokia to benefit from openness

Nokia has often talked about Open Innovation, and has made strong bets in favour of open source.  However, it appears that it has gained comparatively little from these bets so far.

In order to benefit more fully from contributions from external developers, Nokia needs to build additional absorptive capacity into its engineering teams and processes.  Otherwise, there’s little point in continuing down the route of “openness”.  However, with the absorptive capacity in place, the underlying platforms used by Nokia should start accelerating their development – benefiting the entire community (including Nokia).

For more on some of the skills needed, see my article Open Source: necessary but not sufficient.

5. Avoid rash decisions – first, find out what is really happening

I would advise Nokia’s new CEO to urgently bring in expert software process consultants, to conduct an audit of both the strengths and the weaknesses of Nokia’s practices in software development.

To determine which teams really are performing well, and which are performing poorly, it’s not sufficient to rely on any general principle or hearsay.  Instead, I recommend the Lean principle of Genba, Genbutsu, Genjitsu:

Genba means the actual place
Genbutsu means the real thing, the actual thing
Genjitsu means the actual situation

Or, colloquially translated:

Go and see
Get the facts
Grasp the situation

6. Address the Knowing-Doing Gap

The advice I offer above is far from being alien to Nokia.  I am sure there are scores of senior managers inside Nokia who already know and appreciate the above principles.  The deeper problem is one of a “knowing doing gap”.

I’ve written on this topic before.  For now, I’ll just state the conclusion:

The following set of five characteristics distinguish companies that can successfully bridge the knowing-doing gap:

  1. They have leaders with a profound hands-on knowledge of the work domain;
  2. They have a bias for plain language and simple concepts;
  3. They encourage solutions rather than inaction, by framing questions asking “how”, not just “why”;
  4. They have strong mechanisms that close the loop – ensuring that actions are completed (rather than being forgotten, or excuses being accepted);
  5. They are not afraid to “learn by doing”, and thereby avoid analysis paralysis.

Happily for Nokia, Stephen Elop’s background seems to indicate that he will score well on these criteria.

25 December 2008

Why good people fail to change bad things

Filed under: books, change, complacency, leadership, urgency — David Wood @ 3:22 pm

2008 has been a year of great change in the Symbian world. Important change initiatives that were kicked off in previous years have gathered speed.

2008 has also seen change and trauma at many other levels, throughout the mobile industry and beyond. And the need for widespread change still remains. Daily – perhaps hourly – we encounter items that lead us to wonder: Why isn’t someone getting this changed? Why isn’t someone taking proper care of such-and-such a personal issue, family issue, social issue, organisational issue, political issue, educational issue, environmental issue, operating system issue, ecosystem management issue, usability issue, and so on?

I’ve attended quite a few “change facilitation workshops” and similar over the last 24 months. One thinker who has impressed me greatly, with his analysis of the causes of failure of change initiatives – even when good people are involved in these initiatives – is Harvard Business School Professor John Kotter. Kotter describes a series of eight steps which he recommends all significant change initiatives to follow:

  1. Build a sense of urgency
  2. Establish an effective guiding coalition
  3. Create a clear, appealing vision
  4. Communicate, communicate, communicate
  5. Remove obstacles (“empower”)
  6. Celebrate small wins
  7. Follow through with wave after wave of change
  8. Embed the change at the cultural level.

Lots of other writers and speakers have their own different ways of describing the processes of successful change initiatives, but I find Kotter’s analysis to be the most insightful and inspiring.

The main book that covers this eight stage process is “Leading Change” – a book that must rank high in the list of the most valuable business books ever written.

Subsequently, Kotter used the mechanism of an easily-read “cartoon book”, “Our Iceberg Is Melting: Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions“, in order to provide a gentle but compelling introduction to his ideas. It’s a fable about penguins. But it’s a fable with real depth. (I noticed it and purchased a copy in the Inverness airport bookshop one day, and had finished reading it by the time my plane south landed at Gatwick. I was already resolved to find my copy of “Leading Change” and re-read it.)

As Kotter emphasises, the steps in the eight-stage change leadership process have mirror images which are the main eight reasons why change initiatives stumble:

  1. Lack of a sufficient sense of urgency;
  2. Lack of an effective guiding coalition for the change (an aligned team with the ability to make things happen);
  3. Lack of a clear appealing vision of the outcome of the change (otherwise it may seem too vague, having too many unanswered questions);
  4. Lack of communication for buy-in, keeping the change in people’s mind (otherwise people will be distracted back to other issues);
  5. Lack of empowerment of the people who can implement the change (lack of skills, wrong organisational structure, wrong incentives, cumbersome bureaucracy);
  6. Lack of celebration of small early wins (failure to establish momentum);
  7. Lack of follow through (it may need wave after wave of change to stick);
  8. Lack of embedding the change at the cultural level (otherwise the next round of management changes can unravel the progress made).

A few months ago, Kotter released yet another book on the subject of change initiatives that go wrong. Like “Our Iceberg Is Melting”, this is another slim book – only having 128 pages, and with large typeface, making it another very quick read. But, again, the ideas have real merit. This book is called “A sense of urgency“.

As the name implies, this book focuses more fully on the first stage of change initiatives. The biggest reason why significant change initiatives fail, in Kotter’s considered view, is because of a lack of:

a real sense of urgency – a distinctive attitude and gut-level feeling that lead people to grab opportunities and avoid hazards, to make something important happen today, and constantly shed low-priority activities to move faster and smarter, now.

Instead, most organisations (and most people) become stuck in a combination of complacency and what Kotter describes as “false urgency”:

  • Complacency is frequently fuelled by past successes and time-proven strengths – that may, however, prevent organisations from being fully aware of changes in circumstances, technologies, and markets;
  • False urgency involves more activity than productivity: “It is frenetic. It is more mindless running to protect themselves or attack others, than purposive focus on critical problems and opportunities. Run-run, meet-meet, talk-talk, defend-defend, and go home exhausted.”

Kotter provides a helpful list of questions to help organisations realise if they are suffering from over-complacency and/or false urgency:

  • Are critical issues delegated to consultants or task forces with little involvement of key people?
  • Do people have trouble scheduling meetings on important initiatives (“Because, well, my agenda is so full”)?
  • Is candour lacking in confronting the bureaucracy and politics that are slowing down important initiatives?
  • Do meetings on key issues end with no decisions about what must happen immediately (except the scheduling of another meeting)?
  • Are discussions very inwardly focused and not about markets, emerging technologies, competitors, and the like? …
  • Do people run from meeting to meeting, exhausting themselves and rarely if ever focusing on the most critical hazards or opportunities? …
  • Do people regularly blame others for any significant problems, instead of taking responsibility and changing? …

The centrepiece of “A sense of urgency” is a set of four tactics to increase a true sense of urgency:

  1. Bring the outside in. Reconnect internal reality with external opportunities and hazards. Bring in emotionally compelling data, people, video, sights, and sounds.
  2. Behave with urgency every day. Never act content, anxious, or angry. Demonstrate your own sense of urgency always in meetings, one-on-one interactions, memos, and email, and do so as visibly as possible to as many people as possible.
  3. Find opportunity in crises. Always be alert to see if crises can be a friend, not just a dreadful enemy, in order to destroy complaceny. But proceed with caution, and never be naive, since crises can be deadly.
  4. Deal with the NoNos. Remove or neutralise all the relentless urgency-killers: people who are not skeptics but who are determined to keep a group complacent or, if needed, to create destructive urgency.

The rest of the book fleshes out these tactics with examples (taken from Kotter’s extensive consulting and research experience) and additional checklists. To my mind, there’s a great deal to learn from here.

Footnote: Kotter’s emphasis on the topic of “real urgency” may seem to fly in opposition to one of the most celebrated messages of the literature on effectiveness, namely the principle that people should focus on matters that are important rather than matters that are merely urgent. In the renowned “first things first” language of Stephen Covey, people ought to prioritise “Quadrant two” (activities which are important but not urgent) over “Quadrant three” (activities with are urgent but not important).

To my mind, both Kotter and Covey are correct. We do need to start out by figuring what are the most important activities. And then we have to ensure that we keep giving sufficient attention to these activities. Kotter’s insight is that organisations and people can address this latter task by means of the generation of a sufficient sense of urgency around these activities. In other words, we should drive certain key targets out of Quadrant two into Quadrant one. That way, we’ll be more likely to succeed with our key change initiatives.

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