3 July 2013

Preparing for driverless vehicles

Filed under: driverless vehicles, futurist, Humanity Plus, robots, safety, sensors, vision, Volvo — David Wood @ 10:56 am

It’s not just Google that is working on autonomous, self-driving cars. Take a look at this recent Atutoblog video showing technology under development by Swedish manufacturer Volvo:

This represents another key step in the incorporation of smart wireless technology into motor vehicles.

Smart wireless technology already has the potential to reduce the number of lives lost in road accidents. A memo last month from the EU commission describes the potential effect of full adoption of the 112 eCall system inside cars:

The 112 eCall automatically dials Europe’s single emergency number 112 in the event of a serious accident and communicates the vehicle’s location to the emergency services. This call to 112, made either automatically by means of the activation of in-vehicle sensors or manually, carries a standardised set of data (containing notably the type and the location of the vehicle) and establishes an audio channel between the vehicle and the most appropriate emergency call centre via public mobile networks.

Using a built-in acceleration sensor, the system detects when a crash has occurred, and how serious it is likely to be. For example, it can detect whether the car has rolled over onto its roof. Then it transmits the information via a built-in wireless SIM. As the EU commission memo explains:

  • In 2012 around 28,000 people were killed and more than 1.5 million injured in 1.1 million traffic accidents on EU roads.
  • Only around 0.7% of vehicles are currently equipped with private eCall systems in the EU, with numbers barely rising. These proprietary systems do not offer EU-wide interoperability or continuity.
  • In addition to the tragedy of loss of life and injury, this also carries an economic burden of around EUR 130 billion in costs to society every year.
  • 112 eCall can speed up emergency response times by 40% in urban areas and 50% in the countryside. Fully deployed, it can save up to 2500 lives a year and alleviate severity of road injuries. In addition, thanks to improved accident management, it is expected to reduce congestion costs caused by traffic accidents.

That’s 9% fewer fatalities, as a result of emergency assistance being contacted more quickly.

But what if the number of accidents could themselves be significantly reduced? Here it’s important to know the predominant factors behind road accidents. A landmark investigation of 700,000 road accidents in the UK over 2005-2009 produced some surprising statistics. As reported by David Williams in the Daily Telegraph,

Vehicle defects are a factor in only 2.8 per cent of fatals, with tyres mostly to blame (1.5 per cent) followed by dodgy brakes (0.7 per cent).

The overriding message? It’s not your car or the “road conditions” that are most likely to kill you. It’s your own driving.

In more detail:

The biggest cause of road accidents in the UK today? The statistics are quite clear on this and it’s “driver error or reaction”. It’s listed by police as a factor in more than 65 per cent of fatal crashes and the heading covers a multitude of driving sins many of which you’re probably on first-name terms with. Topping the charge sheet is failing to look properly (the Smidsy factor – “Sorry mate, I didn’t see you’, relevant in 20.5 per cent of fatals involving driver error), followed by “loss of control” (34 per cent) which, says Greig, often means leaving yourself with “nowhere to go” after entering a bend or other situation, too quickly. Other errors include “poor turn or manoeuvre” (12 per cent) and “failed to judge other person’s path or speed” (11.6 per cent.).

Second biggest cause of fatal accidents, to blame for 31 per cent, is the “injudicious action”, an umbrella term for “travelled too fast for the conditions’ (15.9 per cent of those labelled injudicious), “exceeded speed limit” (13.9 per cent) or “disobeyed give-way or stop sign” (2.1 per cent)?

Third culprit in the daily gamble on who lives and who dies is “behaviour or inexperience” (28 per cent), which covers faults such as “careless, reckless or in a hurry” (17 per cent), “aggressive driving” (8.3 per cent) and “learner/inexperienced” (5.3 per cent).

The fourth main category is “impairment or distraction” (to blame for 19.6 per cent of fatal accidents) covering “alcohol” (a factor in 9.6 per cent of fatal accidents) and “distraction in vehicle” (2.6 per cent).

(The numbers add up to more than 100% because accidents are often attributed to more than one factor.)

These statistics give strength to the remark by Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google:

Your car should drive itself. It’s amazing to me that we let humans drive cars. It’s a bug that cars were invented before computers.

This suggestion commonly gives rise to three objections:

  1. The technology will never become good enough
  2. Even if the raw technology inside cars becomes better and better, there will need to be lots of changes in roadways, which will take a very long time to achieve
  3. Even if the technology did become good enough, legal systems will never catch up. Who’s going to accept liability for crashes caused by bugs in software?

The first objection is heard less often these days. As noted in a 2011 New York Times interview by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew P. McAfee of the M.I.T. Center for Digital Business, and authors of the book Race Against the Machine,

In 2004, two leading economists, Frank Levy and Richard J. Murnane, published “The New Division of Labor,”which analyzed the capabilities of computers and human workers. Truck driving was cited as an example of the kind of work computers could not handle, recognizing and reacting to moving objects in real time.

But last fall, Google announced that its robot-driven cars had logged thousands of miles on American roads with only an occasional assist from human back-seat drivers. The Google cars are but one sign of the times.

The third objection will surely fall away soon too. There are already mechanisms whereby some degree of liability can be accepted by car manufacturers, in cases where software defects (for example, in braking and accelerating systems) contribute to accidents. Some examples are covered in the CNN Money review “Toyota to pay $1.1 billion in recall case”.

Another reason the third objection will fall away is because the costs of not changing – that is, of sticking with human drivers – may be much larger than the costs of adopting driverless vehicles. So long as we continue to allow humans to drive cars, there will continue to be driver-induced accidents, with all the physical and social trauma that ensues.

That still leaves the second objection: the other changes in the environment that will need to take place, before driverless vehicles can be adopted more widely. And what other changes will take place, possibly unexpectedly, once driverless cars are indeed adopted?

That’s one of the topics that will be covered in this Saturday’s London Futurists event: The future of transport: Preparing for driverless vehicles? With Nathan Koren.

Nathan_Koren_PhotoAs explained by the speaker at the event, Nathan Koren,

The robots have arrived. Driverless transport pods are now in operation at Heathrow Terminal 5 and several other locations around the world. Driver-assist technologies are becoming commonplace. Many believe that fully driverless cars will be commercially available before the decade is out. But what will the broader impact of driverless transport be?

Automobiles were once called “horseless carriages,” as though the lack of a horse was their most important feature. In reality, they changed the way we work, live, and play; changed the way we design cities; and altered the global economy, political landscape, and climate.

It will be the same with driverless vehicles: we can expect their impact to be go far beyond simply being able to take our hands off the wheel.

This presentation and discussion goes into depth about how automated transport will affect our lives and reshape the the world’s cities.

Nathan is a London-based, American-born architect, transport planner, and entrepreneur. He is widely recognised as a leading authority on Automated Transit Networks, and designed what is scheduled to become the world’s first urban-scale system, in Amritsar, India. He works as a Transport Technology & Planning Consultant for Capita Symonds, and recently founded Podaris, a cloud-based platform for the collaborative design of Automated Transit Networks. Nathan holds an Architecture degree from Arizona State University, and an MBA from the University of Oxford.

I hope to see some readers of this blog, who are based in or near London, at the meeting this Saturday. It’s an important topic!

For additional background inspiration, I recommend the three short videos in the article “The future of travel: Transportation confronts its ‘Kodak moment'”. (Thanks to Nathan for drawing this article to my attention.)

Speakers in these videos talk about the industries that are liable to radical disruption (and perhaps irrelevance) due to the rise of collision-proof driverless vehicles. The airbag industry is one; car collision insurance might be another. I’m sure you can think of more.

22 February 2013

Controversies over singularitarian utopianism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Singularitarian Utopia Or A New Dark Age?

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

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

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

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

I really enjoyed this provocative presentation…

Provocative and stimulating…

Very interesting. Thank you for organizing it!…

Amazing and fascinating!…

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

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

Another audience member wrote his own blogpost about the meeting:

A Singularitanian Utopia or a wasted afternoon?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Ian Pearson described the interactions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miniaturisation will bring everyday IT down to jewellery size…

Decoration; Social status; Digital bubble; Tribal signalling…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The complacency about CO2 going into the atmosphere was scary…

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

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

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

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

Here’s my own reaction to these claims:

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

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

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

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

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

And another:

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

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

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

A complicating factor here, Ian stated, was that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One online comment made a shrewd observation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Evidently, the discussion is far from complete…

20 December 2012

An absorbing, challenging vision of near-future struggles

nexus-75-dpiTechnology can cause carnage, and in the wake of the carnage, outrage.

Take the sickening example of the shooting dead of 20 young children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. After that fearful carnage, it’s no surprise that there are insistent calls to restrict the availability of powerful automatic guns.

There are similar examples of carnage and outrage in the new science fiction novel “Nexus: mankind gets an upgrade”, by the noted futurist and writer Ramez Naam.

I met Ramez at the WorldFuture 2012 event in Toronto earlier this year, where he gave a presentation on “Can Innovation Save the Planet?” which I rated as one of the very best sessions in the midst of a very good conference. I’ve been familiar with the high calibre of his thinking for some time, so when I heard that his new book Nexus was available for download to my Kindle – conveniently just ahead of me taking a twelve-hour flight – I jumped at the chance to purchase a copy. It turned out to be a great impulse purchase decision. I finished the book just as the airplane wheels touched down.

The type of technology that is linked to carnage and outrage in Nexus can be guessed from the image on the front cover of the book – smart drugs. Of course, drugs, like guns, are already the source of huge public debate in terms of whether to restrict access. Events described in Nexus make it clear why certain drugs become even more controversial, a few short decades ahead, in this fictional but all-too-credible vision of the near future.

Back in the real world, public interest in smart drugs is already accelerating:

  • I hear more and more discussions when people talk about taking nootropics of one sort or another – to help them “pull an all-nighter”, or to be especially sharp and mentally focused for an important interview. These comments often get followed up by reflections on whether these drugs might convey an unfair advantage.
  • The 2011 film Limitless – which I reviewed in passing here – helped to raise greater public awareness of the potential of this technology.
  • Audience attendance (and the subsequent online debate) at the recent London Futurist event “Hacking our wetware, with Andrew Vladimirov”, convinced me that public appetite for information on smart drugs is about to greatly intensify.

And as discussion of the technology of smart drugs increases, so (quite rightly) does discussion of the potential downsides and drawbacks of that technology.

Nexus is likely to ratchet this interest even higher. The technology in the novel doesn’t just add a few points of IQ, in a transitory basis, to the people who happen to take it. It goes much further than that. It has the potential to radically upgrade humans – with as big a jump in evolution (in the course of a few decades) as the transition between apes and humans. And not everyone likes that potential, for reasons that the book gradually makes credible, through sympathetic portrayals of various kinds of carnage.

Nexus puts the ideas of transhumanism and posthumanism clearly on the map. And lots more too, which I shouldn’t say much about, to avoid giving away the plot and spoiling the enjoyment of new readers.

But I will say this:

  • My own background as a software engineer (a profession I share with Ramez Naam) made me especially attuned to the descriptions of the merging of computing science ideas with those of smart drugs; other software engineers are likely to enjoy these speculations too
  • My strong interest in the battle of ideas about progress made me especially interested in inner turmoil (and changes of mind) of various key characters, as they weighed up the upsides and downsides of making new technology more widely available
  • My sympathy for the necessity of an inner path to enlightenment, to happen in parallel with increasingly smart deployment of increasingly powerful technology, meant that I was intrigued by some of the scenes in the book involving meditative practices
  • My status as an aspiring author myself – I’m now about one third of the way through the book I’m writing – meant that I took inspiration from seeing how a good author can integrate important ideas about technology, philosophy, societal conflict, and mental enlightenment, in a cracking good read.

Ramez is to be congratulated on writing a book that should have wide appeal, and which will raise attention to some very important questions – ahead of the time when rapid improvements of technology might mean that we have missed our small window of opportunity to steer these developments in ways that augment, rather than diminish, our collective humanity.

Anyone who thinks of themselves as a futurist should do themselves a favour and read this book, in order to participate more fully in the discussions which it is bound to catalyse.

Footnote: There’s a lot of strong language in the book, and “scenes of an adult nature”. Be warned. Some of the action scenes struck me as implausible – but hey, that’s the same for James Bond and Jason Bourne, so that’s no showstopper. Which prompts the question – could Nexus be turned into a film? I hope so!

17 April 2011

Towards inner humanity+

Filed under: challenge, films, Humanity Plus, intelligence, vision — David Wood @ 11:06 am

There’s a great scene near the beginning of the film “Limitless“.  The central character, Eddie (played by Bradley Cooper), has just been confronted by his neighbour, Valerie. It’s made clear to the viewers that Valerie is generally nasty and hostile to Eddie. Worse, Eddie owes money to Valerie, and is overdue payment. It seems that a fruitless verbal confrontation looms. Or perhaps Eddie will try to quickly evade her.

But this time it’s different.  Eddie’s brain has been switched into a super-fast enhanced mode (which is the main theme of the film).  Does he take the opportunity to weaken Valerie with fast verbal gymnastics and put-downs?

Instead, he uses his new-found rocket-paced analytic abilities to a much better purpose.  Picking up the tiniest of clues, he realises that Valerie’s foul mood is caused by something unconnected with Eddie himself: Valerie is having a particular problem with her legal studies.  Gathering memories out of the depths of his brain from long-past discussions with former student friends, Eddie is able to suggest ideas to Valerie that rouse her interest and defuse her hostility.  Soon, she’s more receptive.  The two sit down together, and Eddie guides her in the swift completion of a brilliant essay for the tricky homework assignment that has been preying on Valerie’s nerves.

Anyone who watches Limitless is bound to wonder: can technology – such as a smart drug – really have that kind of radical transformative effect on human ability?

Humanity+ is the name of the worldview that says, not only is that kind of technology feasible (within the lifetimes of many people now alive), but it is desirable.  If you watch Limitless right through to the end, you’ll find plenty in the film that offers broad support to the Humanity+ mindset.  That’s a pleasant change from the usual Hollywood conviction that technology-induced human enhancement typically ends up in dysfunction and loss of important human characteristics.

But the question remains: if we become smarter, does it mean we would be better people?  Or would we tend to use accelerated mental faculties to advance our own self-centred personal agendas?

A similar question was raised by an audience member at the “Post Transcendent Man” event in Birkbeck in London last weekend.  Is it appropriate to consider intellectual enhancement without also considering moral enhancement?  Or is it like giving a five year old the keys to a sports car?  Or like handing a bunch of Mujahideen terrorists the instructions to create advanced nuclear weaponry?

Take another example of accelerating technology: the Internet.  This can be used to spy and to hassle, as well as to educate and uplift.  Consider the chilling examples mentioned in the recent Telegraph article “The toxic rise of internet bullies“:

At first glance, Natasha MacBryde’s Facebook page is nothing unusual. A pretty, slightly self-conscious blonde teenager gazes out, posed in the act of taking her own picture. But unlike other pages, this has been set up in commemoration, following her death under a train earlier this month. Now though it has had to be moderated after it was hijacked by commenters who mocked both Natasha and the manner of her death heartlessly.

“Natasha wasn’t bullied, she was just a whore,” said one, while another added: “I caught the train to heaven LOL [laugh out loud].” Others clicked on the “like” symbol, safe in their anonymity, to indicate that they agreed. The messages were removed after a matter of hours, but Natasha’s grieving father Andrew revealed that Natasha’s brother had also discovered a macabre video – entitled “Tasha The Tank Engine” on YouTube (it has since been removed). “I simply cannot understand how or why these people get any enjoyment or satisfaction from making such disgraceful comments,” he said.

He is far from alone. Following the vicious sexual assault on NBC reporter Lara Logan in Cairo last week, online debate on America’s NPR website became so ugly that moderator Mark Memmott was forced to remove scores of comments and reiterate the organisation’s stance on offensive message-posting…

It’s not just anonymous comments that cause concern.  As Richard Adhikari notes in his article “The Internet’s Destruction of Critical Thinking“,

Prior to the dawn of the Internet Age, anyone who wanted to keep up with current events could pretty much count on being exposed to a diversity of subjects and viewpoints. News consumers were passive recipients of content delivered by print reporters or TV anchors, and choices were few. Now, it’s alarmingly easy to avoid any troublesome information that might provoke one to really think… few people do more than skim the surface — and as they do with newspapers, most people tend to read only what interests them. Add to that the democratization of the power to publish, where anyone with access to the Web can put up a blog on any topic whatsoever, and you have a veritable Tower of Babel…

Of course, the more powerful the technology, the bigger the risks if it is used in pursuit of our lower tendencies.  For a particularly extreme example, review the plot of the 1956 science fiction film “Forbidden planet”, as covered here.  As Roko Mijic has explained:

Here are two ways in which the amplification of human intelligence could go disastrously wrong:

  1. As in the Forbidden Planet scenario, this amplification could unexpectedly magnify feelings of ill-will and negativity – feelings which humans sometimes manage to suppress, but which can still exert strong influence from time to time;
  2. The amplication could magnify principles that generally work well in the usual context of human thought, but which can have bad consequences when taken to extremes.

For all these reasons, it’s my strong conviction that any quest to what might be called “outer Humanity+” must be accompanied (and, indeed, preceded) by a quest for “inner Humanity+”.  Both these quests consider the ways in which accelerating technology can enhance human capabilities.  However the differences are summed up in the following comparison:

Outer Humanity+

  • Seeks greater strength
  • Seeks greater speed
  • Seeks to transcend limits
  • Seeks life extension
  • Seeks individual progress
  • Seeks more experiences
  • Seeks greater intelligence
  • Generally optimistic about technology
  • Generally hostile to goals and practice of religion and meditation

Inner Humanity+

  • Seeks greater kindness
  • Seeks deeper insight
  • Seeks self-mastery
  • Seeks life expansion
  • Seeks cooperation
  • Seeks more fulfilment
  • Seeks greater wisdom
  • Has major concerns about technology
  • Has some sympathy to goals and practice of religion and meditation

Back to Eddie in Limitless.  It’s my hunch he was basically a nice guy to start with – except that he was ineffectual.  Once his brainpower was enhanced, he could be a more effectual nice guy.  His brain provided rapid insight on the problems and issues being faced by his neighbour – and proposed effective solutions.  In this example, greater strength led to a more effective kindness.  But if real-life technology delivers real-life intellect enhancement any time soon, all bets are off regarding whether it will result in greater kindness or greater unkindness.  In other words, all bets are off as to whether we’ll create a heaven-like state, or hell on earth.  For this reason, the quest to achieve Inner Humanity+ must overtake the quest to achieve Outer Humanity+.

10 October 2010

The 10 10 10 vision

Filed under: BHAG, leadership, Symbian, vision — David Wood @ 10:19 am

The phrase “10 10 10” first entered my life at a Symbian Leadership Team offsite, held in Tylney Hall in Hampshire, in early January 2007.  We were looking for a memorable new target for Symbian.

A few months earlier, in November 2006, cumulative sales of Symbian-powered phones had passed the milestone of 100 million units, and quarterly sales were continuing to grow steadily.  It was therefore a reasonable (but still bold) extrapolation for Nigel Clifford, Symbian’s CEO, to predict:

The first 100 million took 8 years [from Symbian’s founding, in June 1998],  the next 100 million will take under 80 weeks

That forecast was shared with all Symbian employees later in the month, as we gathered in London’s Old Billingsgate Hall for the annual Kick Off event.  Nigel’s kick off speech also outlined the broader vision adopted by the Leadership Team at the offsite:

By 2010 we want to be shipping 10 million Symbian devices per month

If we do that we will be in 1 in 10 mobile phones shipping across the planet

So … 10 10 10

Fast forward nearly four years to the 10th of October, 2010 – to 10/10/10.  As I write these words at around 10 minutes past 10 o’clock, how did that vision turn out?

According to Canalys figures reported by the BBC, just over 27 million Symbian-powered devices were sold during Q2 2010:

Worldwide smartphone market

OS Q2 2010 shipments % share Q2 2009 shipments % share Growth
Symbian 27,129,340 43.5 19,178,910 50.3 41.5
RIM 11,248,830 18.0 7,975,950 20.9 41
Android 10,689,290 17.1 1,084,240 2.8 885.9
Apple 8,411,910 13.5 5,211,560 13.7 61.4
Microsoft 3,083,060 4.9 3,431,380 9.0 -10.2
Others 1,851,830 3.0 1,244,620 3.3 48.8
Total 62,414,260 100 38,126,660 100 63.3

Dividing by three, that makes just over 9 million units per month in Q2, which is marginally short of this part of the target.

But more significantly, Symbian failed by some way to have the mindshare, in 2010, that the 2007 Leadership Team aspired to.  As the BBC report goes on to say:

Although Symbian is consistently the most popular smart phone operating system, it is often overshadowed by Apple’s iPhone and Google Android operating system.

I’m a big fan of audacious goals – sometimes called BHAGs.  The vision that Symbian would become the most widely used and most widely liked software platform on the planet, motivated me and many of my colleagues to prodigious amounts of hard work over many years.

In retrospect, were these BHAGs misguided?  It’s too early to tell, but I don’t think so. Did we make mistakes along the way?  Absolutely. Should Symbian employees, nevertheless, take great pride in what Symbian has accomplished?  Definitely. Has the final chapter been written on smartphones?  No way!

But as for myself, my vision has evolved.  I’m no longer a “Symbian smartphone enthusiast”.  Instead, I’m putting my energies into being a “smartphone technology enthusiast“.

I don’t yet have a new BHAG in mind that’s as snappy as either “10 10 10” or “become the most widely used and most widely liked software platform on the planet”, but I’m working on it.

The closest I’ve reached so far is “smartphone technology everywhere“, but that needs a lot of tightening.

Footnote: As far as I can remember, the grainy photo below is another remnant of the Symbian Leadership Team Jan 2007 Tylney Hall offsite.  (The helmets and harnesses were part of a death-defying highwire team-building exercise.  We all lived to tell the tale.)

(From left to right: Standing: Andy Brannan, Charles Davies, Nigel Clifford, David Wood, Kent Eriksson, Kathryn Hodnett, Thomas Chambers, Jorgen Behrens; Squatting: Richard Lowther, Stephen Williams.)

9 October 2010

On smartphones, superphones, and subphones

What comes next after smartphones?

There’s big league money in smartphones.  In 2009, around 173 million smartphones were sold worldwide.  IDC predicts this figure will jump to nearly 270 million in 2010.  According to Informa, that represents about 27% of the total mobile phone unit sales in 2010.  But as Informa also point out, it represents around 55% of total market value (because of their high average selling price), and a whopping 64% of the mobile phone market’s profits.

As well as big money from sales of smartphones themselves, there’s big money in sales of applications for smartphones.  A recent report from Research2Guidance evaluates the global smartphone application market as being worth $2.2 (£1.4) billion during the first half of 2010, already surpassing the total value of $1.7 (£1.1) billion for all 12 months of 2009.

  • What’s next? If there’s so much money in the rapidly evolving smartphone market, where will the underlying wave of associated technological and commercial innovation strike next?  Answer that question correctly, and you might have a chance to benefit big time.

Three answers deserve attention.

1. More smartphones

The first answer is that the smartphone market is poised to become larger and larger.  The current spurt of growth is going to continue.  More and more people are going to be using smartphones, and more and more people will be downloading and using more and more applications.  This growth will be driven by:

  • Decreasing costs of smartphone devices
  • Improved network connectivity
  • An ever-wider range of different applications, tailored to individual needs of individual mobile consumers
  • Improved quality of applications, networks, and devices – driven by fierce competition
  • Burgeoning word-of-mouth recommendations, as people tell each other about compelling mobile services that they come across.

Perhaps one day soon, more than 50% of all mobile phones will be built using smartphone technology.

2. Superphones

The second answer is that smartphones are going to become smarter and more capable.  The improvements will be so striking that the phrase “smartphone” won’t do them justice.  Google used a new term, “superphone”, when it introduced the Nexus One device:

Nexus One is an exemplar of what’s possible on mobile devices through Android — when cool apps meet a fast, bright and connected computer that fits in your pocket. The Nexus One belongs in the emerging class of devices which we call “superphones”. It’s the first in what we expect to be a series of products which we will bring to market with our operator and hardware partners and sell through our online store.

Blogger Stasys Bielinis of UnwiredView takes up the analysis in his recent thought-provoking article, “Nokia’s doing OK in smartphones. It’s superphones where Apple and Google Android are winning”:

Smartphones and superphones share some common characteristics – always on connectivity, ability to make phone calls and send SMS/MMS, access the internet and install third party software apps.  But the ways these devices are used are very different – as different as iPads/tablets are different from laptops/netbooks.

The main function of a smartphone – is a mobile phone.  You use it primarily to do voice calls and send/receive short text messages via SMS/MMS.  Yes, your smartphone can do a lot more things – take pictures, browse the Web, play music, stream audio/video from the net, make use of various third-party apps.  But you use those additional functions only when you really need it, or there’s no better option than a device in your pocket, or when there’s some particularly interesting mobile service/app that requires your attention – e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, or other status updaters.   But they are secondary functions for your smartphone. And, due to the design limitations – small displays, crammed keypads/keyboards, button navigation, etc – using those additional “smart” capabilities is a chore…

Superphones, on the other hand, are not phones anymore. They are truly small mobile computers in your pocket, with phone/texting as just another app among many. The user experience – big displays, (multi) touch, high quality browsers, etc – is optimized to transfer big screen PC interaction models to the limitations of mobile device that can fit in your pocket. While the overall experience doing various things on your superphone is a bit worse than doing those same things on your laptop, it’s not much worse, and is actually good enough for the extensive use on the go…

There’s scope to quibble with the details of this distinction.  But there’s merit in the claim that the newer smartphones – whatever we call them – typically manifest a lot more of the capabilities of the computing technology that’s embedded into them.  The result is:

  • More powerful applications
  • Delivering more useful functionality.

3. Subphones

The first answer, above, is that smartphones are going to become significantly more numerous.  The second answer is that smartphones are going to become significantly more powerful.  I believe both these answers.  These answers are both easy to understand.  But there’s a third answer, which is just as true  as the first two – and perhaps even more significant.

Smartphone technology is going to become more and more widely used inside numerous types of devices that don’t look like smartphones.

These devices aren’t just larger than smartphones (like superphones).  They are different from smartphones, in all kinds of way.

If the motto “smartphones for all” drove a great deal of the development of the mobile industry during the decade 2000-2010, a new motto will become increasingly important in the coming decade: “Smartphone technology everywhere”.  This describes a new wave of embedded software:

  • Traditional embedded software is when computing technology is used inside devices that do not look like computers;
  • The new wave of embedded software is when smartphone technology is used inside devices that do not look like smartphones.

For want of a better term, we can call these devices “subphones”: the underlying phone functionality is submerged (or embedded).

Smartphone technology everywhere

The phrase “smartphone technology” is shorthand for technology (both hardware and software) whose improvement was driven by the booming commercial opportunities of smartphones.  Market pressures led to decreased prices, improved quality, and new functionality.  Here are some examples:

  • Wireless communications chips – and the associated software
  • Software that can roam transparently over different kinds of wireless network
  • Large-scale data storage and information management – both on a device, and on the cloud
  • Appealing UIs on small, attractive, hi-res graphics displays
  • Streaming mobile multimedia
  • Device personalisation and customisation
  • Downloadable and installable applications, that add real value to the base device
  • Access to the Internet while mobile, in ways that make sense on small devices
  • High performance on comparatively low-powered hardware with long battery life
  • Numerous sensors, including location, direction, motion, and vision.

The resulting improvements allow these individual components to be re-purposed for different “subphone” devices, such as:

  • Tablets and slates
  • Connected consumer electronics (such as cameras and personal navigation devices)
  • Smart clothing – sometimes called “wearable computers” – or a “personal area network”
  • Smart cars – including advanced in-vehicle infotainment
  • Smart robots – with benefits in both industrial automation and for toys
  • Smart meters and smart homes
  • Smart digital signs, that alter their display depending on who is looking at them
  • Mobile medical equipment – including ever smaller, ever smarter “micro-bots”.

By some estimates, the number of such subphones will reach into the hundreds of billions (and even beyond) within just a few short years.  As IBM have forecast,

Soon there will be 1 trillion connected devices in the world. A smarter planet will require a smarter communications infrastructure. When things communicate, systems connect. And when systems connect, the world gets smarter.

This will be an era where M2M (machine to machine) wireless communications far exceed communications directly involving humans.  We’ll be living, not just in a sea of smart devices, but inside an “Internet of Things”.

Barriers to benefits

Smartphone technologies bring many opportunities – but these opportunities are, themselves, embedded in a network of risks and issues.  Many great mobile phone companies failed to survive the transition to smartphones.  In turn, some great smartphone companies are struggling to survive the transition to superphones.  It’s the same with subphones – they’re harder than they look.  They’re going to need new mindsets to fully capitalise on them.

To make successful products via disruptive new combinations of technology typically requires more than raw technological expertise.  A broad range of other expertise is needed too:

  • Business model innovation – to attract new companies to play new roles (often as “complementors”) in a novel setup
  • Ecosystem management – to motivate disparate developers to work together constructively
  • System integration and optimisation – so that the component technologies join together into a stable, robust, useable whole
  • User experience design – to attract and retain users to new usage patterns
  • Product differentiation – to devise and deploy product variants into nearby niches
  • Agility – to respond rapidly to user feedback and marketplace learnings.

The advance of software renders some problems simpler than before.  Next generation tools automate a great deal of what was previously complex and daunting.  However, as software is joined together in novel ways with technologies from different fields, unexpected new problems spring up, often at new boundaries.  For example, the different kinds of subphones are likely to have unexpected interactions with each other, resulting in rough edges with social and business aspects as much as technological ones.

So whilst there are many fascinating opportunities in the world beyond smartphones, these opportunities deserve to be approached with care.  Choose your partners and supporters wisely, as you contemplate these opportunities!

Footnote 1: For some vivid graphics illustrating the point that companies who excel in one era of mobile technology (eg traditional mobile phones) sometimes fail to retain their profit leadership position in a subsequent era (eg superphones), see this analysis by Asymco.

Footnote 2: On the “superphone” terminology:

It wasn’t Google that invented the term “superphone”.  Nokia’s N95 was the first phone to be widely called a superphone – from around 2006.  See eg here and here.

In my own past life, I toyed from time to time with the phrase “super smart phone” – eg in my keynote address to the 2008 Mobile 2.0 event in San Francisco.

Footnote 3: I look forward to discussing some of these topics (and much more besides) with industry colleagues, both old and new, at a couple of forthcoming conferences which I’ll be attending:

  • SEE10 – the Symbian Expo and Exchange – in Amsterdam, Nov 9-10
  • MeeGo Conference – in Dublin, Nov 13-15.

In each case, I’ll be part of the Accenture Embedded Software Services presence.

23 March 2010

The search for big political ideas

Filed under: democracy, Humanity Plus, innovation, politics, vision — David Wood @ 1:07 am

On Saturday, I attended an event called “The Battle for Politics“, organised by the Institute for Ideas as a “pre-election public summit”.

The publicity material for this event gave me reason to look forward to it:

Party politics no longer seems to be about clear ideological differences, or indeed any kind of substantial debate reflecting competing visions for a better society. Nonetheless, many pressing issues remain unresolved.

So though it might be tempting to write off mainstream politics as irrelevant, and to take a ‘none of the above’ position in the coming election, this can only feed the pervasive cynicism about the possibility of social change and progress. History has not gone on standby, but continues to throw up new challenges.

The Institute of Ideas wants to take the opportunity of this election to re-enfranchise the electorate and put each candidate on the spot by asking them to declare where they stand on a range of key questions.

And yes, there were some worthy discussions during the day:

  • The electorate seem still to be deeply interested in political matters, even though they are alienated from existing political parties and politicians;
  • Changing the way voting takes place might engender better discussion and buy-in from the electorate to the political process;
  • The ever growing costs of the welfare state – coupled with our current financial shortfalls – mean that some significant change is needed in how the welfare state operates;
  • Insights from social sciences (such as behavioural economics) possibly have at least some role to play in improving political governance;
  • Wider adoption of evidence-based policy – where appropriate – probably will also improve governance.

However, at the end of the day, I felt underwhelmed by what had taken place.

For example: at the event, the Institute of Ideas had launched their “21 pledges for progress 2010“.  This included the following gems:

  • Limit the police’s power to detain people without charge to 24 hours rather than 28 days, in the interests of civil liberties and due process.
  • Declare an amnesty for all illegal immigrants presently in the UK, whether asylum seekers or economic migrants, in the interests of recognising the positive aspirations of those who seek to improve their lives by moving countries.
  • Open the borders, revoking all immigration controls, in the interests of the free movement of citizens.
  • Get rid of police Tsars and unelected ‘experts’ from government decision-making in the interests of parliamentary sovereignty and democratic accountability.
  • Abolish the monarchy and the House of Lords in the interests of a fully elected legislature and executive.
  • Direct state funding of schools into providing universal access to the highest standard of education in academic subjects, rather than politicised cross curricular themes like sustainability or citizenship, in the interests of passing on real knowledge to our children.

I applaud the Institute of Ideas for catalysing debate on a series of important topics, but I saw little evidence of political ideas that are likely to deservedly capture the imagination and the enthusiasm of the electorate.

The material I liked best, from what was on display, was something entitled “The London Manifesto for Innovation”, created by a group called “The Big Potatoes“.  This made the following assertions:

  • We should “think big” about the potential of innovation, since there’s a great deal that innovation can accomplish;
  • Rather than “small is beautiful” we should keep in mind the slogan “scale is beautiful”;
  • We should seek more than just a continuation of the “post-war legacy of innovation” – that’s only the start;
  • Breakthrough innovations are driven by new technology – so we should prioritise the enablement of new technology;
  • Innovation is hard work and an uphill struggle – so we need to give it our full support;
  • Innovation arises from pure scientific research as well as from applied research – both are needed;
  • Rather than seeking to avoid risk or even to manage risk, we have to be ready to confront risk;
  • Great innovation needs great leaders of innovation, to make it happen;
  • Instead of trusting regulations, we should be ready to trust people;
  • Markets, sticks, carrots and nudges are no substitute for what innovation itself can accomplish.

I’d like to build on these insights, with some concrete suggestions.  These are suggestions for items that should become national priorities – items that deserve a larger amount of attention, analysis, resourcing, and funding.  Borrowing some of the “big potatoes” language, I see these items as potentially having major impact over the next 10-20 years.  As such, they deserve to be national priorities during the decade ahead.

I’m not sure exactly what belongs on this list of national priorities, and look forward to feedback.  But here’s an initial proposal:

  1. Preventive medicine – since the costs of prevention will in many cases dwarf the cost of cures;
  2. Anti-aging treatments – an important special case of the previous point;
  3. Better than well – just as there are many benefits to avoiding ill-health, there are many benefits to promoting super-health;
  4. Cognitive enhancement and intelligence augmentation – to help everyone to become smarter and more sociable (both individually and collectively);
  5. Artificial general intelligence – an important special case of the previous point;
  6. Improved rationality (overcoming biases, in all their forms) – another important special case of the same point;
  7. Freedom from fundamentalism – diminishing the hold of dogma, whether from “scripture” or “tradition” or “prophets”;
  8. Education about accelerating technology – so people become fully aware of the opportunities, risks, context, and options;
  9. Robotics supporting humans – providing unmatched strength, precision, and diligence;
  10. Nanotechnology – the use of atom-level engineering to create highly useful new materials, compounds, and tools;
  11. Synthetic biology – techniques of software and manufacturing applied to biology, with huge benefits for health;
  12. Largescale clean energy – whether solar, nuclear, or whatever;
  13. Patent system reform – to address aspects of intellectual property law where innovation and collaboration are being hindered rather than helped;
  14. Smart market regulation – to handle pressures where social forces lead to market failures rather than genuinely useful products;
  15. Expansion of voluntary enterprise (the domain of not-for-profit contribution) – since not everything good is driven by financial motivation;
  16. Expansion of human autonomy – supporting greater choice and experience – in both virtual and physical reality;
  17. New measures of human accomplishment – an attractive vision that supersedes economic measures such as GDP;
  18. Geo-engineering capability – to equip us with tools to wisely restructure the planet (and more).

To give this list a name: I tentatively call this list “The Humanity+ Agenda“.  I propose to say more about it at the Humanity+, UK2010 event in London’s Conway Hall on 24th April.

The list is driven by my beliefs that:

  • Humanity in the 21st century is facing both enormous challenges and enormous opportunities – “business as usual” is not sustainable;
  • Wise application of technology is the factor that will make the single biggest difference to successfully addressing these challenges and opportunities;
  • If we get things right, human experience in just a few decades time will be very substantially better than it is today – for all people, all over the world;
  • However, there’s nothing inevitable about any of this;
  • Getting things right will require us becoming smarter and more effective than ever before – but, thankfully, that is within our grasp;
  • This is worth shouting about!

Footnote: Some people say that big political ideas are dangerous, and that a focus on effective political management, pursuing pragmatic principles, is far preferable to ideology.  I sympathise with this viewpoint, and share an apprehension of ideology.  But provided rationality remains at the forefront, and provided people remain open to discussion and persuasion, I see great value in vision and focus.

17 March 2010

Complementary currencies

Filed under: Economics, sustainability, vision, Zeitgeist — David Wood @ 11:49 pm

Recently, I mused about a world economy without money.

Two replies – from Peter Jackson and from Marios Gerogiokas – independently drew my attention to a different notion: complementary currencies.

In brief:

  • Rather than seeking to fix our current economic and social dilemmas by reducing the number of monetary systems from one to zero – as proposed by the Zeitgeist Movement – this alternative idea proposes increasing the number of monetary systems, from one to more-than-one.

Marios drew my attention to a TEDxBerlin talk by Belgian economist Bernard Lietaer, “Why this crisis? And what to do about it?“:

The talk takes a bit of time to get going, but it makes an increasingly interesting series of points:

  • We need resilience in our economic structures, as well as efficiency;
  • One way to achieve resilience is to avoid mono-culture;
  • Having “complementary” currency systems running in parallel is one way to avoid monetary mono-culture;
  • Without adoption of complementary currencies, we risk repetitions of the recent economic crash.

Here’s one quote that struck me:

Complementary currencies are now where open source software and microfinance were 10 years ago.

And another:

It would be crazy to believe that we’re going into the information age, and the most important information system – our money – will not change.

Personally, I see it as much more likely that our monetary system will evolve and improve rather than it will be removed altogether.

Of course, there are risks in any such evolution (just as there are risks with the status quo).  Some of the reasons for the recent economic crash, after all, were the innovative financial systems (with an alphabet soup of acronym names) that turned out to be insufficiently understood.

Footnote: There’s more about the concept of complementary currency on Wikipedia.

15 March 2010

Imagining a world without money

Filed under: Economics, futurist, motivation, politics, Singularity, vision, Zeitgeist — David Wood @ 11:48 am

On Saturday, I attended “London Z Day 2010” – described as

presentations about futurism and technology, the singularity and the current economic landscape, activism and how to get involved…

Around 300 people were present in the Oliver Thompson Lecture Theatre of London’s City University.  That’s testimony to good work by the organisers – the UK chapter of the worldwide “Zeitgeist Movement“.

I liked a lot of what I heard – a vision that advocates greater adoption of:

  • Automation: “Using technology to automate repetitive and tedious tasks leads to efficiency and productivity. It is also socially responsible as people are freed from labor that undermines their intelligence”
  • Artificial intelligence: “machines can take into account more information”
  • The scientific method: “a proven method that has stood the test of time and leads to discovery. Scientific method involves testing, getting feedback from natural world and physical law, evaluation of results, sharing data openly and requirement to replicate the test results”
  • Technological unification: “Monitoring planetary resources is needed in order to create an efficient system, and thus technology should be shared globally”.

I also liked the sense of urgency and activism, to move swiftly from the current unsustainable social and economic frameworks, into a more rational framework.  Frequent references of work of radical futurists like Ray Kurzweil emphasised the plausibility of rapid change, driven by accelerating technological innovation.  That makes good sense.

I was less convinced by other parts of the Zeitgeist worldview – in particular, its strong “no money” and “no property” messages.

Could a society operate without money?  Speakers from the floor seemed to think that, in a rationally organised society, everyone would be able to freely access all the goods and services they need, rather than having to pay for them.  The earth has plenty of resources, and we just need to look after them in a sensible way.  Money has lots of drawbacks, so we should do without it – so the argument went.

One of the arguments made by a speaker, against a monetary basis of society, was the analysis from the recent book “The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better” by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.  Here’s an excerpt of a review of this book from the Guardian:

We are rich enough. Economic growth has done as much as it can to improve material conditions in the developed countries, and in some cases appears to be damaging health. If Britain were instead to concentrate on making its citizens’ incomes as equal as those of people in Japan and Scandinavia, we could each have seven extra weeks’ holiday a year, we would be thinner, we would each live a year or so longer, and we’d trust each other more.

Epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett don’t soft-soap their message. It is brave to write a book arguing that economies should stop growing when millions of jobs are being lost, though they may be pushing at an open door in public consciousness. We know there is something wrong, and this book goes a long way towards explaining what and why.

The authors point out that the life-diminishing results of valuing growth above equality in rich societies can be seen all around us. Inequality causes shorter, unhealthier and unhappier lives; it increases the rate of teenage pregnancy, violence, obesity, imprisonment and addiction; it destroys relationships between individuals born in the same society but into different classes; and its function as a driver of consumption depletes the planet’s resources.

Wilkinson, a public health researcher of 30 years’ standing, has written numerous books and articles on the physical and mental effects of social differentiation. He and Pickett have compiled information from around 200 different sets of data, using reputable sources such as the United Nations, the World Bank, the World Health Organisation and the US Census, to form a bank of evidence against inequality that is impossible to deny.

They use the information to create a series of scatter-graphs whose patterns look nearly identical, yet which document the prevalence of a vast range of social ills. On almost every index of quality of life, or wellness, or deprivation, there is a gradient showing a strong correlation between a country’s level of economic inequality and its social outcomes. Almost always, Japan and the Scandinavian countries are at the favourable “low” end, and almost always, the UK, the US and Portugal are at the unfavourable “high” end, with Canada, Australasia and continental European countries in between.

This has nothing to do with total wealth or even the average per-capita income. America is one of the world’s richest nations, with among the highest figures for income per person, but has the lowest longevity of the developed nations, and a level of violence – murder, in particular – that is off the scale. Of all crimes, those involving violence are most closely related to high levels of inequality – within a country, within states and even within cities. For some, mainly young, men with no economic or educational route to achieving the high status and earnings required for full citizenship, the experience of daily life at the bottom of a steep social hierarchy is enraging…

The anxiety in this book about our current economic system was reflected in anxiety expressed by all the Zeitgeist Movement speakers.  However, the Zeitgeist speakers drew a more radical conclusion.  It’s not just that economic inequalities have lots of bad side effects.  They say, it’s money-based economics itself that causes these problems.  And that’s a hard conclusion to swallow.

They don’t argue for reforming the existing economic system.  Rather, they argue for replacing it completely.  Money itself, they say, is the root problem.

The same dichotomy arose time and again during the day.  Speakers highlighted many problems with the way the world currently operates.  But instead of advocating incremental reforms – say, for greater equality, or for oversight of the market – they advocated a more radical transformation: no money, and no property.  What’s more, the audience seemed to lap it all up.

Of course, money has sprung up in countless societies throughout history, as something that allows for a more efficient exchange of resources than simple bartering.  Money provides a handy intermediate currency, enabling more complex transactions of goods and services.

In answer, the Zeitgeist speakers argue that use of technology and artificial intelligence would allow for more sensible planning of these goods and services.  However, horrible thoughts come to mind of all the failures of previous centrally controlled economies, such as in Soviet times.  In answer again, the Zeitgeist speakers seem to argue that better artificial intelligence will, this time, make a big difference.  Personally, I’m all in favour of gradually increased application of improved automatic decision systems.  But I remain deeply unconvinced about removing money:

  1. Consumer desires can be very varied.  Some people particularly value musical instruments, others foreign travel, others sports equipment, others specialist medical treatment, and so on.  What’s more, the choices are changing all the time.  Money is a very useful means for people to make their own, individual choices
  2. A speaker from the floor suggested that everyone would have access to all the medical treatment they needed.  That strikes me as naive: the amount of medical treatment potentially available (and potentially “needed” in different cases) is unbounded
  3. Money-based systems enable the creation of loans, in which banks lend out more money than they have in their assets; this has downsides but also has been an important spring to growth and development;
  4. What’s more, without the incentive of being able to earn more money, it’s likely that a great deal of technological progress would slow down; many people would cease to work in such a focused and determined way to improve the products their company sells.

For example, the Kurzweil curves showing the projected future improvements in technology – such as increased semiconductor density and computational capacity – will very likely screech to a halt, or dramatically slow down, if money is removed as an incentive.

So whilst the criticism offered by the Zeitgeist movement is strong, the positive solution they advocate lacks many details.

As Alan Feuer put it, in his New York Times article reviewing last year’s ZDay, “They’ve Seen the Future and Dislike the Present“:

The evening, which began at 7 with a two-hour critique of monetary economics, became by midnight a utopian presentation of a money-free and computer-driven vision of the future, a wholesale reimagination of civilization, as if Karl Marx and Carl Sagan had hired John Lennon from his “Imagine” days to do no less than redesign the underlying structures of planetary life.

Idealism can be a powerful force for positive social change, but can be deeply counterproductive if it’s based on a misunderstanding of what’s possible.  I’ll need a lot more convincing about the details of the zero-money “resource based economy” advocated by Zeitgeist before I could give it any significant support.

I’m a big fan of debating ideas about the future – especially radical and counter-intuitive ideas.  There’s no doubt that, if we are to survive, the future will need to be significantly different from the past.  However, I believe we need to beware the kind of certainty that some of the Zeitgeist speakers showed.  The Humanity+, UK2010 conference, to be held in London on 24th April, will be an opportunity to review many different ideas about the best actions needed to create a social environment more conducive to enabling the full human potential.

Footnote: an official 86 page PDF “THE ZEITGEIST MOVEMENT – OBSERVATIONS AND RESPONSES: Activist Orientation Guide” is available online.

The rapid growth of the Zeitgeist Movement has clearly benefited from popular response to two movies, “Zeitgeist, the Movie” (released in 2007) and “Zeitgeist: Addendum” (released in 2008).  Both these movies have gone viral.  There’s a great deal in each of these movies that makes me personally uncomfortable.  However, one learning is simply the fact that well made movies can do a great deal to spread a message.

For an interesting online criticism of some of the Zeitgeist Movements ideas, see “Zeitgeist Addendum: The Review” by Stefan Molyneux from Freedomain Radio.

7 January 2010

Mobiles manifesting AI

Filed under: AGI, Apple, futurist, intelligence, m2020, vision — David Wood @ 12:15 am

If you get lists from 37 different mobile industry analysts of “five game-changing mobile trends for the next decade“, how many overlaps will there be?  And will the most important ideas be found in the “bell” of the aggregated curve of predictions, or instead in the tails of the curve?

Of the 37 people who took part in the “m2020” exercise conducted by Rudy De Waele, I think I was the only person to mention either of the terms “AI” (Artificial Intelligence) or “PDA” (Personal Digital Assistant), as in the first of my five predictions for the 2010’s:

  • Mobiles manifesting AI – fulfilling, at last, the vision of “personal digital assistants”

However, there were some close matches:

  • Rich Wong predicted “Smart Agents 2.0 (thank you Patty Maes) become real; the ability to deduce/impute context from blend of usage and location data”;
  • Marshall Kirkpatrick predicted “Mobile content recommendation”;
  • Carlo Longino predicted “The mobile phone will evolve into an enabler device, carrying users’ digital identities, preferences and possessions around with them”;
  • Steve O’Hear predicted “People will share more and more personal information. Both explicit e.g. photo and video uploads or status updates, and implicit data. Location sharing via GPS (in the background) is one current example of implicit information that can be shared, but others include various sensory data captured automatically via the mobile phone e.g. weather, traffic and air quality conditions, health and fitness-related data, spending habits etc. Some of this information will be shared privately and one-to-one, some anonymously and in aggregate, and some increasingly made public or shared with a user’s wider social graph. Companies will provide incentives, both at the service level or financially, in exchange for users sharing various personal data”;
  • Robert Rice predicted “Artificial Life + Intelligent Agents (holographic personalities)”.

Of course, these predictions cover a spread of different ideas.  Here’s what I had in mind for mine:

  • Our mobile electronic companions will know more and more about us, and will be able to put that information to good use to assist us better;
  • For example, these companion devices will be able to make good recommendations (e.g. mobile content, or activities) for us, suggest corrections and improvements to what we are trying to do, and generally make us smarter all-round.

The idea is similar to what former CEO of Apple, John Sculley, often talked about, during his tenure with Apple.  From a history review article about the Newton PDA:

John Sculley, Apple’s CEO, had toyed with the idea of creating a Macintosh-killer in 1986. He commissioned two high budget video mockups of a product he called Knowledge Navigator. Knowledge Navigator was going to be a tablet the size of an opened magazine, and it would have very sophisticated artificial intelligence. The machine would anticipate your needs and act on them…

Sculley was enamored with Newton, especially Newton Intelligence, which allowed the software to anticipate the behavior of the user and act on those assumptions. For example, Newton would filter an AppleLink email, hyperlink all of the names to the address book, search the email for dates and times, and ask the user if it should schedule an event.

As we now know, the Apple Newton fell seriously short of expectation.  The performance of “intelligent assistance” became something of a joke.  However, there’s nothing wrong with the concept itself.  It just turned out to be a lot harder to implement than originally imagined.  The passage of time is bringing us closer to actual useful systems.

Many of the interfaces on desktop computers already show an intelligent understanding of what the user may be trying to accomplish:

  • Search bars frequently ask, “Did you mean to search for… instead of…?” when I misspell a search clue;
  • I’ve almost stopped browsing through my list of URL bookmarks; I just type a few characters into the URL bar and the web-browser lists websites it thinks I might be trying to find – including some from my bookmarks, some pages I visit often, and some pages I’ve visited recently;
  • It’s the same for finding a book on Amazon.com – the list of “incrementally matching books” can be very useful, even after only typing part of a book’s title;
  • And it’s the same using the Google search bar – the list of “suggested search phrases” contains, surprisingly often, something I want to click on;
  • The set of items shown in “context sensitve menus” often seems a much smarter fit to my needs, nowadays, than it did when the concept was first introduced.

On mobile, search is frequently further improved by subsetting results depending on location.  As another example, typing a few characters into the home screen of the Nokia E72 smartphone results in a list of possible actions for people whose contact details match what’s been typed.

Improving the user experience with increasingly complex mobile devices, therefore, will depend not just on clearer graphical interfaces (though that will help too), but on powerful search engines that are able to draw upon contextual information about the user and his/her purpose.

Over time, it’s likely that our mobile devices will be constantly carrying out background processing of clues, making sense of visual and audio data from the environment – including processing the stream of nearby spoken conversation.  With the right algorithms, and with powerful hardware capabilities – and provided issues of security and privacy are handled in a satisfactory way – our devices will fulfill more and more of the vision of being a “personal digital assistant”.

That’s part of what I mean when I describe the 2010’s as “the decade of nanotechnology and AI”.

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