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15 September 2015

A wiser journey to a better Tomorrowland

Peter Drucker quote

Three fine books that I’ve recently had the pleasure to finish reading all underscore, in their own ways, the profound insight expressed in 1970 by management consultant Peter Drucker:

The major questions regarding technology are not technical but human questions.

That insights sits alongside the observation that technology has been an immensely important driver of change in human history. The technologies of agriculture, steam, electricity, medicine, and information, to name only a few, have led to dramatic changes in the key metrics in human civilisation – metrics such as population, travel, consumption, and knowledge.

But the best results of technology typically depend upon changes happening in parallel in human practice. Indeed, new general purpose technology sometimes initially results, not in an increase of productivity, but in an apparent decline.

The productivity paradox

Writing in Forbes earlier this year, in an article about the “current productivity paradox in healthcare”, Roy Smythe makes the following points:

There were two previous slowdowns in productivity that were not anticipated, and caused great consternation – the adoption of electricity and the computer. The issues at hand with both were the protracted time it took to diffuse the technology, the problem of trying to utilize the new technology alongside the pre-existing technology, and the misconception that the new technology should be used in the same context as the older one.

Although the technology needed to electrify manufacturing was available in the early 1890s, it was not fully adopted for about thirty years. Many tried to use the technology alongside or in conjunction with steam-driven engines – creating all manner of work-flow challenges, and it took some time to understand that it was more efficient to use electrical wires and peripheral, smaller electrical motors (dynamos) than to connect centrally-located large dynamos to the drive shafts and pulleys necessary to disperse steam-generated power. The sum of these activities resulted in a significant, and unanticipated lag in productivity in industry between 1890 and 1920…

However, in time, these new GPTs (general purpose technologies) did result in major productivity gains:

The good news, however, is substantial. In the two decades following the adoption of both electricity and the computer, significant acceleration of productivity was enjoyed. The secret was in the ability to change the context (in the case of the dynamo, taking pulleys down for example) assisting in a complete overhaul of the business process and environment, and the spawning of the new processes, tools and adjuncts that capitalized on the GPT.

In other words, the new general purpose technologies yielded the best results, not when humans were trying to follow the same processes as before, but when new processes, organisational models, and culture were adopted. These changes took time to conceive and adopt. Indeed, the changes took not only time but wisdom.

Wachter Kotler Naam

The Digital Doctor

Robert Wachter’s excellent book “The Digital Doctor: Hope, Hype, and Harm at the Dawn of Medicine’s Computer Age” provides a dazzling analysis of the ways in which the computerisation of health records – creating so-called EHRs (Electronic Health Records) – is passing through a similar phase of disappointing accomplishment. EHRs are often associated with new kinds of errors, with additional workload burdens, and with interfering in the all-important human relationship between doctor and patient. They’re far from popular with healthcare professionals.

Wachter believes these problems to be temporary: EHRs will live up to their promise in due course. But only once people can set the hype aside. What’s needed is that designers of healthcare tech products and systems will:

  • Put a much higher priority on ease of use, simplifying usage patterns, and on redesigning the overall flow of activity
  • Recognise and deal with the multiple complexities of the world of medicine.

For a good flavour of Wachter’s viewpoint, consider this extract from a New York Times opinion article he wrote in March, “Why Health Care Tech Is Still So Bad”,

Last year, I saw an ad recruiting physicians to a Phoenix-area hospital. It promoted state-of-the-art operating rooms, dazzling radiology equipment and a lovely suburban location. But only one line was printed in bold: “No E.H.R.”

In today’s digital era, a modern hospital deemed the absence of an electronic medical record system to be a premier selling point.

That hospital is not alone…

I interviewed Boeing’s top cockpit designers, who wouldn’t dream of green-lighting a new plane until they had spent thousands of hours watching pilots in simulators and on test flights. This principle of user-centered design is part of aviation’s DNA, yet has been woefully lacking in health care software design.

Our iPhones and their digital brethren have made computerization look easy, which makes our experience with health care technology doubly disappointing. An important step is admitting that there is a problem, toning down the hype, and welcoming thoughtful criticism, rather than branding critics as Luddites.

In my research, I found humility in a surprising place: the headquarters of I.B.M.’s Watson team, the people who built the computer that trounced the “Jeopardy!” champions. I asked the lead engineer of Watson’s health team, Eric Brown, what the equivalent of the “Jeopardy!” victory would be in medicine. I expected him to describe some kind of holographic physician, like the doctor on “Star Trek Voyager,” with Watson serving as the cognitive engine. His answer, however, reflected his deep respect for the unique challenges of health care. “It’ll be when we have a technology that physicians suddenly can’t live without,” he said.

I’m reminded of a principle I included in a long-ago presentation, “Enabling simply great mobile phones” (PDF), from 2004:

It’s easy to make something hard;
It’s hard to make something easy…

Smartphones will sell very well provided they allow users to build on, and do more of, the things that caused users to buy phones in the first place (communication and messaging, fashion and fun, and safety and connection) – and provided they allow users to do these things simply, even though the phones themselves are increasingly complex.

As for smartphones, so also for healthcare technology: the interfaces need to protect users from the innumerable complications that lurk under the surface. The greater the underlying complexity, the greater the importance of smart interfaces.

Again as for smartphones, once good human interfaces have been put in place, the results of new healthcare technology can be enormous. The New York Times article by Wachter contains a reminder of vexed issues within healthcare – issues that technology has the power to solve:

Health care, our most information-intensive industry, is plagued by demonstrably spotty quality, millions of errors and backbreaking costs. We will never make fundamental improvements in our system without the thoughtful use of technology.

Tomorrowland

In a different way, Steven Kotler’s new book also brings human considerations to the forefront. The title of the book is “Tomorrowland: Our Journey from Science Fiction to Science Fact”. It’s full of remarkable human interest stories, that go far beyond simple cheer-leading for the potential of technological progress.

I had the pleasure to help introduce Steven at a recent event in Campus London, which was co-organised by London Futurists and FutureSelf. Steven appeared by Skype.

AtCampusLondon

(photos by Kirsten Zverina)

Ahead of the event, I had hoped to be able to finish reading his book, but because of other commitments I had only managed to read the first 25%. That was already enough to convince me that the book departed from any simple formula of techno-optimism.

In the days after the event, I was drawn back to Kotler’s book time and again, as I kept discovering new depth in its stories. Kotler brings a journalist perspective to the hopes, fears, struggles, and (yes) remarkable accomplishments of many technology pioneers. For most of these stories, the eventual outcome is still far from clear. Topics covered included:

  • The difficulties in trying to save the Florida Everglades from environmental collapse
  • Highlights from the long saga of people trying to invent flying cars (you can read that excerpt online here)
  • Difficulties and opportunities with different kinds of nuclear energy
  • The potential for technology to provide quick access to the profound feelings of transcendence reported from so-called “out of the body” and “near death experiences”
  • Some unexpected issues with the business of sperm donation
  • Different ways to enable blind people to see
  • Some missed turnings in the possibilities to use psychedelic drugs more widely
  • Options to prevent bio-terrorists from developing pathogens that are targeted at particular individuals.

There’s a video preview for the book:

The preview is a bit breathless for my liking, but the book as a whole provides some wonderfully rounded explorations. The marvellous potential of new technology should, indeed, inspire awe. But that potential won’t be attained without some very clear thinking.

Apex

The third of the disparate trio of three books I want to mention is, itself, the third in a continuous trilogy of fast-paced futurist fiction by Ramez Naam.

In “Apex: Connect”, Naam brings to a climactic culmination the myriad chains of human and transhuman drama that started in “Nexus: Install” and ratcheted in “Crux: Upgrade”.

RamezNaamTrilogy

Having been enthralled by the first two books in this trilogy, I was nervous about starting to listen to the third, since I realised it would likely absorb me for most of the next few days. I was right – but the absorption was worth it.

There’s plenty of technology in this trilogy, which is set several decades in the future: enhanced bodies, enhanced minds, enhanced communications, enhanced artificial intelligence. Critically, there is plenty of human  frailty too: people with cognitive biases, painful past experiences, unbalanced perspectives, undue loyalty to doubtful causes. Merely the fact of more powerful technology doesn’t automatically make people kinder as well as stronger, or wiser as well as smarter.

Another reason I like Apex so much is because it embraces radical uncertainty. Will superintelligence be a force that enhances humanity, or destroys it? Are regulations for new technology an instrument of oppression, or a means to guide people to more trustworthy outcomes? Should backdoors be built into security mechanisms? How should humanity treat artificial general intelligence, to avoid that AGI reaching unpleasant conclusions?

To my mind, too many commentators (in the real world) have pat answers to these questions. They’re too ready to assert that the facts of the matter are clear, and that the path to a better Tomorrowland is evident. But the drama that unfolds in Apex highlights rich ambiguities. These ambiguities require careful thought and wide appreciation. They also require human focus.

Postscript: H+Pedia

In between my other projects, I’m trying to assemble some of the best thinking on the pros and cons of key futurist questions. My idea is to use the new site H+Pedia for that purpose.

hpluspedia

As a starter, see the page on Transhumanism, where I’ve tried to assemble the most important lines of argument for and against taking a transhumanist stance towards the future. The page includes some common lines of criticism of transhumanism, and points out:

  • Where these criticisms miss the mark
  • Where these criticisms have substance – so that transhumanists ought to pay attention.

In some cases, I offer clear-cut conclusions. But in other cases, the balance of the argument is ambiguous. The future is far from being set in stone.

I’ll welcome constructive contributions to H+Pedia from anyone interested in the future of humanity.

Second postscript:

It’s now less than three weeks to the Anticipating 2040 event, where many speakers will be touching on the themes outlined above. Here’s a 90 second preview of what attendees can expect.

5 January 2014

Convictions and actions, 2014 and beyond

In place of new year’s resolutions, I offer five convictions for the future:

First, a conviction of profoundly positive near-term technological possibility. Within a generation – within 20 to 40 years – we could all be living with greatly improved health, intelligence, longevity, vigour, experiences, general well-being, personal autonomy, and social cohesion. The primary driver for this possibility is the acceleration of technological improvement.

In more detail:

  • Over the next decade – by 2025 – there are strong possibilities for numerous breakthroughs in fields such as 3D printing, wearable computing (e.g. Google Glass), synthetic organs, stem cell therapies, brain scanning, smart drugs that enhance consciousness, quantum computing, solar energy, carbon capture and storage, nanomaterials with super-strength and resilience, artificial meat, improved nutrition, rejuvenation biotech, driverless cars, robot automation, AI and Big Data transforming healthcare, improved collaborative decision-making, improved cryonic suspension of people who are biologically dead, and virtual companions (AIs and robots).
  • And going beyond that date towards mid-century, I envision seven “super” trends enabled by technology: trends towards super-materials (the fulfilment of the vision of nanotechnology), super-energy (the vision of abundance), super-health and super-longevity (extension of rejuvenation biotech), super-AI, super-consciousness, and super-connectivity.

Second, however, that greatly improved future state of humanity will require the deep application of many other skills, beyond raw technology, in order to bring it into reality. It will require lots of attention to matters of design, psychology, sociology, economics, philosophy, and politics.

Indeed, without profound attention to human and social matters, over the next 10-20 years, there’s a very real possibility that global society may tear itself apart, under mounting pressures. In the process, this fracturing and conflict could, among lots of other tragic consequences, horribly damage the societal engines for technological progress that are needed to take us forward to the positive future described above. It would bring about new dark ages.

Third, society needs a better calibre of thinking about the future.

Influential figures in politics, the media, academia, and religious movements all too often seem to have a very blinkered view about future possibilities. Or they latch on to just one particular imagining of the future, and treat it as inevitable, losing sight of the wider picture of uncertainties and potentialities.

So that humanity can reach its true potential, in the midst of the likely chaos of the next few decades, politicians and other global leaders need to be focusing on the momentous potential forthcoming transformation of the human condition, rather than the parochial, divisive, and near-term issues that seem to occupy most of their thinking at present.

Fourth, there are plenty of grounds for hope for better thinking about the future. In the midst of the global cacophony of mediocrity and distractedness, there are many voices of insight, vision, and determination. Gradually, a serious study of disruptive future scenarios is emerging. We should all do what we can to accelerate this emergence.

In our study of these disruptive future scenarios, we need to collectively accelerate the process of separating out

  • reality from hype,
  • science fact from science fiction,
  • credible scenarios from wishful thinking,
  • beneficial positive evolution from Hollywood dystopia,
  • human needs from the needs of businesses, corporations, or governments.

Futurism – the serious analysis of future possibilities – isn’t a fixed field. Just as technology improves by a virtuous cycle of feedback involving many participants, who collectively find out which engineering solutions work best for particular product requirements, futurism can improve by a virtuous cycle of feedback involving many participants – both “amateur” and “professional” futurists.

The ongoing process of technological convergence actually makes predictions harder, rather than easier. Small perturbations in one field can have big consequences in adjacent fields. It’s the butterfly effect. What’s more important than specific, fixed predictions is to highlight scenarios that are plausible, explaining why they are plausible, and then to generate debate on the desirability of these scenarios, and on how to enable and accelerate the desirable outcomes.

To help in this, it’s important to be aware of past and present examples of how technology impacts human experience. We need to be able to appreciate the details, and then to try to step back to understand the underlying principles.

Fifth, this is no mere armchair discussion. It’s not an idle speculation. The stakes are really high – and include whether we and our loved ones can be alive, in a state of great health and vitality, in the middle of this century, or whether we will likely have succumbed to decay, disease, division, destruction – and perhaps death.

We can, and should, all make a difference to this outcome. You can make a difference. I can make a difference.

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In line with the above five convictions, I’m working on three large projects over the next six months:

Let me briefly comment on each of these projects.

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Forthcoming London Futurists event: The Burning Question

The first “real-world” London Futurists meetup in 2014, on Saturday 18th January, is an in-depth analysis of what some people have described as the most complex and threatening issue of the next 10-30 years: accelerated global warming.

Personally I believe, in line with the convictions I listed above, that technology can provide the means to dissolve the threats of accelerated global warming. Carbon capture and storage, along with solar energy, could provide the core of the solution. But these solutions will take time, and we need to take some interim action sooner.

As described by the speaker for the event, writer and consulting editor Duncan Clark,

Tackling global warming will mean persuading the world to abandon oil, coal and gas reserves worth many trillions of dollars – at least until we have the means to put carbon back in the ground. The burning question is whether that can be done. What mix of technology, politics, psychology, and economics might be required? Why aren’t clean energy sources slowing the rate of fossil fuel extraction? Are the energy companies massively overvalued, and how will carbon-cuts affect the global economy? Will we wake up to the threat in time? And who can do what to make it all happen?

For more details and to RSVP, click here.

Note that, due to constraints on the speaker’s time, this event is happening on Saturday evening, rather than in the afternoon.

RSVPs so far are on the light side for this event, but now that the year-end break is behind us, I expect them to ramp up – in view of the extreme importance of this debate.

Forthcoming London Futurists Hangout On Air, with Ramez Naam

One week from today, on the evening of Sunday 12th January, we have our “Hangout on Air” online panel discussion, “Ramez Naam discusses Nexus, Crux, and The Infinite Resource”.

For more details, click here.

Here’s an extract of the event description:

Ramez Naam is arguably one of today’s most interesting and important writers on futurist topics, including both non-fiction and fiction.

  • For example, praise for his Nexus – Mankind gets an upgrade includes:
  • “A superbly plotted high tension technothriller… full of delicious moral ambiguity… a hell of a read.” – Cory Doctorow, Boing Boing
  • “A sharp, chilling look at our likely future.” – Charles Stross
  • “A lightning bolt of a novel. A sense of awe missing from a lot of current fiction.” – Ars Technica.

This London Futurists Hangout on Air will feature a live discussion between Ramez Naam and an international panel of leading futurists: Randal KoeneMichell Zappa, and Giulio Prisco. 

The discussion aims to cover:

  • The science behind the fiction: which elements are strongly grounded in current research, and which elements are more speculative?
  • The philosophy behind the fiction: how should people be responding to the deeply challenging questions that are raised by new technology?
  • Finding a clear path through what has been described as “the best of times and the worst of times” – is human innovation sufficient?
  • What lies next – new books in context.

I’ll add one comment to this description. Over the past week or so, I took the time to listen again to Ramez’s book “Nexus”, and I’m also well through the follow-up, “Crux”. I’m listening to them as audio books, obtained from Audible. Both books are truly engrossing, with a rich array of nuanced characters who undergo several changes in their personal philosophies as events unfold. It also helps that, in each case, the narrators of the audio books are first class.

Another reason I like these books so much is because they’re not afraid to look hard at both good outcomes and bad outcomes of disruptive technological possibility. I unconditionally recommend both books. (With the proviso that they contain some racy, adult material, and therefore may not be suitable for everyone.)

Forthcoming London Futurists Hangout On Air, AI and the end of the human era

I’ll squeeze in mention of one more forthcoming Hangout On Air, happening on Sunday 26th January.

The details are here. An extract follows:

The Hollywood cliché is that artificial intelligence will take over the world. Could this cliché soon become scientific reality, as AI matches then surpasses human intelligence?

Each year AI’s cognitive speed and power doubles; ours does not. Corporations and government agencies are pouring billions into achieving AI’s Holy Grail — human-level intelligence. Scientists argue that AI that advanced will have survival drives much like our own. Can we share the planet with it and survive?

The recently published book Our Final Invention explores how the pursuit of Artificial Intelligence challenges our existence with machines that won’t love us or hate us, but whose indifference could spell our doom. Until now, intelligence has been constrained by the physical limits of its human hosts. What will happen when the brakes come off the most powerful force in the universe?

This London Futurists Hangout on Air will feature a live discussion between the author of Our Final InventionJames Barrat, and an international panel of leading futurists: Jaan TallinnWilliam HertlingCalum Chace, and Peter Rothman.

The main panellist on this occasion, James Barrat, isn’t the only distinguished author on the panel. Calum Chace‘s book “Pandora’s Brain”, which I’ve had the pleasure to read ahead of publication, should go on sale some time later this year. William Hertling is the author of a trilogy of novels

  • Avogadro Corp: The Singularity Is Closer Than It Appears,
  • A.I. Apocalypse,
  • The Last Firewall.

The company Avogadro Corp that features in this trilogy has, let’s say, some features in common with another company named after a large number, i.e. Google. I found all three novels to be easy to read, as well as thought-provoking. Without giving away plot secrets, I can say that the books feature more than one potential route for smarter-than-human general purpose AI to emerge. I recommend them. Start with the first, and see how you get on.

Anticipating 2025

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The near future deserves more of our attention.

A good way to find out about the Anticipating 2025 event is to look at the growing set of “Speaker preview” videos that are available at http://anticipating2025.com/previews/.

You’ll notice that at least some of these videos have captions available, to help people to catch everything the speakers say.

These captions have been produced by a combination of AI and human intelligence:

  • Google provides automatically generated transcripts, from its speech recognition engine, for videos uploaded to YouTube
  • A team of human volunteers works through these transcripts, cleaning them up, before they are published.

My thanks go to everyone involved so far in filming and transcribing the speakers.

Registration for this conference requires payment at time of registration. There are currently nearly 50 people registered, which is a good start (with more than two months to go) towards filling the venue’s capacity of 220.

Early bird registration, for both days, is pegged at £40. I’ll keep early bird registration open until the first 100 tickets have been sold. Afterwards, the price will increase to £50.

Smartphones and beyond

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Here’s a brief introduction to this book:

The smartphone industry has seen both remarkable successes and remarkable failures over the last two decades. Developments have frequently confounded the predictions of apparent expert observers. What does this rich history have to teach analysts, researchers, technology enthusiasts, and activists for other forms of technology adoption and social improvement?

As most regular readers of this blog know, I’ve worked in mobile computing for 25 years. That includes PDAs (personal digital assistants) and smartphones. In these fields, I’ve seen numerous examples of mobile computing becoming more powerful, more useful, and more invisible – becoming a fundamental part of the fabric of society. Smartphone technology which was at one time expected to be used by only a small proportion of the population – the very geeky or the very rich – is now in regular use by over 50% of the population in many countries in the world.

As I saw more and more fields of human interest on the point of being radically transformed by mobile computing and smartphone technology, the question arose in my mind: what’s next? Which other fields of human experience will be transformed by smartphone technology, as it becomes still smaller, more reliable, more affordable, and more powerful? And what about impacts of other kinds of technology?

Taking this one step further: can the processes which have transformed ordinary phones into first smartphones and then superphones be applied, more generally, to transform “ordinary humans” (humans 1.0, if you like), via smart humans or trans humans, into super humans or post humans?

These are the questions which have motivated me to write this book. You can read a longer introduction here.

I’m currently circulating copies of the first twenty chapters for pre-publication review. The chapters available are listed here, with links to the opening paragraphs in each case, and there’s a detailed table of contents here.

As described in the “Downloads” page of the book’s website, please let me know if there are any chapters you’d particularly like to review.

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