Last night I joined a gathering known as “Big Potatoes”, for informal discussion over dinner at the De Santis restaurant in London’s Old Street.
The potatoes in question weren’t on the menu. They were the potential big innovations that politicians ought to be contemplating.
The Big Potatoes group has a tag-line: “The London Manifesto for Innovation”.
As their website states,
The London Manifesto for Innovation is a contribution to improving the climate for innovation globally.
The group first formed in the run-up to the previous UK general election (2010). I blogged about them at that time, here, when I listed the principles from their manifesto:
- 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.
That was 2010. What has caused the group to re-form now, in 2015, is the question:
Why is so much of the campaigning for the 2015 election preoccupied with small fries, when it could – and should – be concentrating on big potatoes?
Last night’s gathering was facilitated by three of the writers of the 2010 big potato manifesto: Nico Macdonald, James Woudhuysen, and Martyn Perks. The Chatham House rules that were in place prevents me from quoting directly from the participants. But the discussion stirred up plenty of thoughts in my own mind, which I’ll share now.
The biggest potato
I share the view expressed by renowned physicist Freeman Dyson, in the book “Infinite in all directions” from his 1985 Gifford lectures:
Technology is… the mother of civilizations, of arts, and of sciences
Technology has given rise to enormous progress in civilization, arts and sciences over recent centuries. New technology is poised to have even bigger impacts on civilization in the next 10-20 years. So why aren’t politicians paying more attention to it?
MIT professor Andrew McAfee takes up the same theme, in an article published in October last year:
History teaches us that nothing changes the world like technology
McAfee spells out a “before” and “after” analysis. Here’s the “before”:
For thousands of years, until the middle of the 18th century, there were only glacial rates of population growth, economic expansion, and social development.
And the “after”:
Then an industrial revolution happened, centred around James Watt’s improved steam engine, and humanity’s trajectory bent sharply and permanently upward
One further quote from McAfee’s article rams home the conclusion:
Great wars and empires, despots and democrats, the insights of science and the revelations of religion – none of them transformed lives and civilizations as much as a few practical inventions
In principle, many of the grave challenges facing society over the next ten years could be solved by “a few practical inventions”:
- Students complain, with some justification, about the costs of attending university. But technology can enable better MOOCs – Massive Online Open Courses – that can deliver high quality lectures, removing significant parts of the ongoing costs of running universities; free access to such courses can do a lot to help everyone re-skill, as new occupational challenges arise
- With one million people losing their lives to traffic accidents worldwide every year, mainly caused by human driver error, we should welcome the accelerated introduction of self-driving cars
- Medical costs could be reduced by greater application of the principles of preventive maintenance (“a stitch in time saves nine”), particularly through rejuvenation biotechnology and healthier diets
- A sustained green tech new deal should push society away from dependency on fuels that emit dangerous amounts of greenhouse gases, resulting in lifestyles that are positive for the environment as well as positive for humanity
- The growing costs of governmental bureaucracy itself could be reduced by whole-heartedly embracing improved information technology and lean automation.
Society has already seen remarkable changes in the last 10-20 years as a result of rapid progress in fields such as electronics, computers, digitisation, and automation. In each case, the description “revolution” is appropriate. But even these revolutions pale in significance to the changes that will, potentially, arise in the next 10-20 years from extraordinary developments in healthcare, brain sciences, atomically precise manufacturing, 3D printing, distributed production of renewable energy, artificial intelligence, and improved knowledge management.
Indeed, the next 10-20 years look set to witness four profound convergences:
- Between artificial intelligence and human intelligence – with next generation systems increasingly embodying so-called “deep learning”, “hybrid intelligence”, and even “artificial emotional intelligence”
- Between machine and human – with smart technology evolving from “mobile” to “wearable” and then to “insideable”, and with the emergence of exoskeletons and other cyborg technology
- Between software and biology – with programming moving from silicon (semiconductor) to carbon (DNA and beyond), with the expansion of synthetic biology, and with the application of genetic engineering
- Between virtual and physical – with the prevalence of augmented reality vision systems, augmented reality education via new MOOCs (massive open online courses), cryptocurrencies that remove the need for centralised audit authorities, and lots more.
To take just one example: Wired UK has just reported a claim by Brad Perkins, chief medical offer at Human Longevity Inc., that
A “supercharged” approach to human genome research could see as many health breakthroughs made in the next decade as in the previous century
The “supercharging” involves taking advantage of four converging trends:
“I don’t have a pill” to boost human lifespan, Perkins admitted on stage at WIRED Health 2015. But he has perhaps the next best thing — data, and the means to make sense of it. Based in San Diego, Human Longevity is fixed on using genome data and analytics to develop new ways to fight age-related diseases.
Perkins says the opportunity for humanity — and Human Longevity — is the result of the convergence of four trends: the reduction in the cost of genome sequencing (from $100m per genome in 2000, to just over $1,000 in 2014); the vast improvement in computational power; the development of large-scale machine learning techniques; and the wider movement of health care systems towards ‘value-based’ models. Together these trends are making it easier than ever to analyse human genomes at scale.
Whilst entrepreneurs and technologists are foreseeing comprehensive solutions to age-related diseases – as well as the rise of smart automation that could free almost every member of the society of the need to toil in employment that they dislike – what are politicians obsessing about?
Instead of the opportunities of tomorrow, politicians are caught up in the challenges of yesteryear and today. Like a short-sighted business management team obsessed by the next few quarterly financial results but losing sight of the longer term, these politicians are putting all their effort into policies for incremental changes to present-day metrics – metrics such as tax thresholds, the gross domestic product, policing levels, the degree of privatisation in the health service, and the rate of flow of migrants from Eastern Europe into the United Kingdom.
It’s like the restricted vision which car manufacturing pioneer Henry Ford is said to have complained about:
If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.
This is light years away from leadership. It’s no wonder that electors are deeply dissatisfied.
The role of politics
To be clear, I’m not asking for politicians to dictate to entrepreneurs and technologists which products they should be creating. That’s not the role of politicians.
However, politicians should be ensuring that the broad social environment provides as much support as possible to:
- The speedy, reliable development of those technologies which have the potential to improve our lives so fully
- The distribution of the benefits of these technologies to all members of society, in a way that preserves social cohesion without infringing individual liberties
- Monitoring for risks of accidental outcomes from these technologies that would have disastrous unintended consequences.
In this way, politicians help to address the human angle to technology. It’s as stated by management guru Peter Drucker in his 1986 book “Technology, Management, and Society”:
We are becoming aware that the major questions regarding technology are not technical but human questions.
Indeed, as the Transpolitica manifesto emphasises:
The speed and direction of technological adoption can be strongly influenced by social and psychological factors, by legislation, by subsidies, and by the provision or restriction of public funding.
Political action can impact all these factors, either for better or for worse.
The manifesto goes on to set out its objectives:
Transpolitica wishes to engage with politicians of all parties to increase the likelihood of an attractive, equitable, sustainable, progressive future. The policies we recommend are designed:
- To elevate the thinking of politicians and other leaders, away from being dominated by the raucous issues of the present, to addressing the larger possibilities of the near future
- To draw attention to technological opportunities, map out attractive roads ahead, and address the obstacles which are preventing us from fulfilling our cosmic potential.
Specific big potatoes that are missing from the discussion
If our political leaders truly were attuned to the possibilities of disruptive technological change, here’s a selection of the topics I believe would find much greater prominence in political discussion:
- How to accelerate lower-cost high quality continuous access to educational material, such as MOOCs, that will prepare people for the radically different future that lies ahead
- How to accelerate the development of personal genome healthcare, stem cell therapies, rejuvenation biotech, and other regenerative medicine, in order to enable much healthier people with much lower ongoing healthcare costs
- How to ensure that a green tech new deal succeeds, rather than continues to fall short of expectations (as it has been doing for the last 5-6 years)
- How to identify and accelerate the new industries where the UK can be playing a leading role over the next 5-10 years
- How to construct a new social contract – perhaps involving universal basic income – in order to cope with the increased technological unemployment which is likely to arise from improved automation
- How society should be intelligently assessing any new existential risks that emerging technologies may unintentionally trigger
- How to transition the network of bodies that operate international governance to a new status that is fit for the growing challenges of the coming decades (rather than perpetuating the inertia from the times of their foundations)
- How technology can involve more people – and more wisdom and insight from more people – in the collective decision-making that passes for political processes
- How to create new goals for society that embody a much better understanding of human happiness, human potential, and human flourishing, rather than the narrow economic criteria that currently dominate decisions
- How to prepare everyone for the next leaps forward in human consciousness which will be enabled by explorations of both inner and outer space.
Why small fries?
But the biggest question of all isn’t anything I’ve just listed. It’s this:
- Why are politicians still stuck in present-day small fries, rather than focusing on the big potatoes?
I’ll be interested in answers to that question from readers. In the meantime, here are my own initial thoughts:
- The power of inertia – politicians, like the rest of us, tend to keep doing what they’re used to doing
- Too few politicians have any deep personal insight (from their professional background) into the promise (and perils) of disruptive technology
- The lack of a specific vision for how to make progress on these Big Potato questions
- The lack of clamour from the electorate as a whole for answers on these Big Potato questions.
If this is true, we must expect it will take some time for public pressure to grow, leading politicians in due course to pay attention to these topics.
It will be like the growth in capability of any given exponential technology. At first, development takes a long time. It seems as if nothing much is changing. But finally, tipping points are reached. At that stage, it become imperative to act quickly. And at that stage, politicians (and their advisors) will be looking around urgently for ready-made solutions they can adapt from think tanks. So we should be ready.