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The latest insights from Futurizon. Our in-house futurologist Ian Pearson gives his thoughts on what's coming along and how it will affect business, politics and society.
Some more recent posts are on http://timeguide.wordpress.com/
It's amazing what a few months can do. I've been watching the activity on the net since Climategate quite closely. Before that, I held the view that the earth was warming and that CO2 was probably a major contributor, but I was already sceptical that CO2 was the whole story because there were other plausible theories based on solar activity that affects cloud formation and they seemed to have a good foundation in historical evidence going back millennia. But like everyone else, I had no real idea how the climate worked. So, Climategate came for me in the middle of a learning period, where I decided that climate would figure much more in futures work, so needed to get a handle on it. I've now been studying climate science for about 9 months, so I still only qualify as a novice, and won't be giving up my day job any time soon.
The BBC chief says they need the best people, therefore have to pay the best too. This line of argument is seriously flawed but is cited in every boardroom remuneration battle. It too often results in highly excessive reward for mediocre performance.
So, another election set in the dark ages. Three parties to pick from, all of them unattractive. I am 49 and this is the first election where I don't want to vote for any of the parties. I am very dissatisfied with the current state of democracy, especially in the UK, where we have all the means to make it better but choose not to because of vested interests.
The UK has suffered from more than two decades of bad leadership, and the UK needs to change if it is to survive as one of the world's top countries. As things look at the start of 2010, we will be replacing a very bad government with a bad one, and that will not do.
A new NHS computer system will use a simple questionnaire to predict the probability of a patient having early cancer symptoms, allowing doctors to send them for screening and hopefully early detection. http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2009/dec/29/cancer-diagnosis-computer-programme is interesting, and the system promises to save up to 10,000 lives a year in the UK. Great, roll it on, but let's be careful we don't throw the baby away when we change the nappy.
There seems to be a lot of talk about Apple's new tablet computer. It is certainly very long overdue - I've been writing and talking for almost two decades about magazine tablets sitting on our coffee tables or propped up as a smart recipe tablet against a bag of flour in the kitchen or being read in the bath or stuck with magnets on the fridge door. We need lightweight touch-sensitive, flexible, wipe clean displays all over the house. They really need to cost less than $100 each to reach their potential, preferably less than $50. That price point with reasonable performance is entirely achievable for a perfect tablet, but not for the i-Slate. I rather suspect that this being Apple, and having used Apple computers every day since 1981, the i-Slate will be underpowered, under-equipped and overpriced, crash frequently, but be very pretty and do useful things in fairly intuitive ways, so will sell well. I like Apple, even though I find them very frustrating.
I love nature, but I also love humans, and when push comes to shove, I support poor people trying to make a living more than I support the tree - though I will always prefer a solution that can allow them both to survive in harmony. I support some environment organisations, but I do so from a pragmatic viewpoint rather than to feel holy and I don't always agree with their actions when I think they are misinformed, or when they give too little attention to the needs of poor people. I think it is safe to say that some environmental organisations seem to prioritise protecting nature to lifting poor people out of poverty, and some of the policies debated in Copenhagen would have seen poor people suffer greatly to protect the environment for us rich people. That isn't fair.
Americans and Chinese are currently arguing at Copenhagen about who should pay for fixing climate change. The assumption is that CO2 is to blame, and the USA makes more than most, so should pay more. Countries should take responsibility for their actions and pay the price if they have taken more than their fair share of resources. But what should we use as a starting point?
So, let's think... quantum computer uses circuits that occupy all possible states simulatenously. Mmmm... So, if I partially design a quantum computer and start building it while I'm still figuring out the remaining circuity... maybe it will occupy all possible designs, and one of those will be so smart it can design another one far better than me... so all I need to do is connect a partially built, partially designed quantum computer to an assembler, and it will do the rest of the work for me, and solve all the questions I could possibly have asked it. Inclduing how to connect to all other possible computers via quantum entanglement chains. And then I can take over the world. Hahahahaha! Hahahahahahah! They'll all be sorry. Hahahahahaha!
I have tried for several years to get to grips with climate science but still only understand a tiny bit now. The environment is an amazingly complex system, and it will take many more years of research before we understand it well. We have made many mistakes in the past when we have interfered with nature without enough understanding. I am worried now because with Copenhagen coming up, it does seem to me that we are again rushing into action before we understand the problem well enough to know what to do about it. The trouble is, as is now obvious to all, that there are too many vested interests on both sides of the debate, and what good science there is out there is diluted by a large measure of nonsense and propaganda, from both sides. And as we've just learned, some science has even been blocked from journals because it disagrees with the views of more powerful scientists. I personally am appalled by the corruption exposed in the UEA's CRU. Claims that the data has not been cherry-picked and distorted and the models fixed to produce the desired results run completely against the words in the culprits own emails. But as has been pointed out often since, the UEA is not the only lab saying we are seeing significant climate change. Some other labs may have been influenced and some may be fixing their results too, but we don't know, and I doubt if they all are.
Part of my family is Swiss, so I followed the recent referendum on minarets with more interest than I normally would. They have voted to ban construction of minarets on mosques. But the debate seems to have missed a key point. The world is no longer limited to physical appearance. We now have augmented reality, albeit just the very first instances. In a few years time, augmented reality will be well developed and will feature heavily in everyday life. Today we use mobile phone displays but soon many of us will use some sort of head-up display, and we will see all manner of computer generated information and images superimposed on our real world field of view. Social, political, religious and business groups will use augmented reality to produce customised overlays that include their particular symbols. So for muslims, this could be used to produce the image of a minaret, for anyone interested in seeing it. Muslims can have virtual minarets, and as many as they want, without interfering with the physical reality of a mosque. French Muslims can have virtual burqas too if they like. And everyone else can choose whether they want to see them or not.
Refusal to deal properly with MPs' Expenses, encouraging massive immigration just to annoy the Tories, helping in the eradication of democracy in Europe by refusing 65 million people any say in their future, ignoring scientific fraud in climate research provided it opens up new tax and wealth re-distribution platforms, incompetence dealing with the banking collapse and subsequent worsening of double or multiple dip recession, getting us bogged down in far away conflicts, imposing a Big Brother surveillance state, associating the UK with the eradication of free speech via libel laws, making the UK the divorce capital of the world, engaging in illegal wars overseas while providing a safe haven for terrorist groups here, upending the justice system so that over-filling a bin is punished more severely than mugging or shoplifting and presiding over the dismantling of common sense in favour of political correctness, dismantling society, etc, etc.
First, I really like George Monbiot's blog today, but he doesn't say it all so I'm just adding my own comments. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/georgemonbiot/2009/nov/25/monbiot-climate-leak-crisis-response
Science is a proven mechanism for gathering and accumulating knowledge about how the universe works. Some clever bunny comes up with a theory and someone carefully tests it, doing real life experiments to get some real data that is evidence for or against it. They publish that data, along with details of the experiment (or their computer models), so that other scientists can check it and try to replicate the experimental data, to make sure there isn't just some error in the experimental process or the analysis. If verified data doesn't fully fit the initial theory, the theory is modified, and the process starts over. Over time, theories are well tested and either verified or disproved, and the whole field of scientific knowledge progresses, with new knowledge gradually added to what we already knew. This process has worked well for hundreds of years, and is the basis for almost all of our technological progress. Science is just verified knowledge.
Inventions succeed or fail in the market depending on how many people want them, and are prepared to pay the price. Reasons for wanting them vary enormously, but one of the guarantees of success is if the idea allows us to do stuff we always wanted to, but couldn't. And one of the biggest and most common reasons why we can't do something is that it is not socially acceptable.
http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/11/20/domestic_violence_database/ discusses a recent ACPO/Home Office proposal that looks at how domestic violence affects women and children, and specifically excludes men. If this is true, it is very disturbing. Violence against women is of course completely unacceptable, but many men are subjected to domestic violence too, which can be just as harmful to them, so it seems rather odd to deliberately exclude them, especially when our government makes so much noise about the need for equality. But leaving discrimination aside, the most worrying thing here is that a database is to be set up that specifically includes claims from women that would not be able to stand up to court standards. That means that any unsubstantiated rumours or malicious claims can be included in the database, possibly trashing a man's reputation, and potentially affecting his ability to forge new relationships (potential partners, or any woman claiming that they are interested in becoming a partner, would be able to ask police for any data). I find it very disturbing that the mere word of a woman should be taken as proof of the guilt of a man. It is not unheard of for women to tell lies. If a relationship fails, it is common for a woman to feel upset, and this system gives her an easy route to cause real and lasting harm her ex with no cost or risk to herself. It is even possible that men who are the victims of violence could then find themselves becoming victim to false accusations of violence against the women who attacked them.
Several years ago I gave a presentation to the Royal College of Nursing. One of the main points of my talk was that the main role of nurses was caring for the patient and helping them get better, and that that by sticking to this, nurses would be guaranteed to keep a valued place in society, whereas if they pursued degrees in a misguided attempt to become somehow more 'professional', and effectively cheap doctors, they would both lose the esteem in which the public held them, and also jeopardise their future in a world where AI could already outperform average doctors in diagnosis, and where robots were already starting to do the highest precision surgery.
I am one of very many people wondering what all the fuss is about with Frankie Boyle's joke at Rebecca Adlington's expense. To me it isn't even remotely in the same league offence-wise as the one by Ross and Brand a year ago. He basically joked about her looks and sexual prowess. Of course it was poor taste, but most jokes are.
I'm listening to some music right now. Far too loud - even my daughter complained! It's stuff I used to listen to 30 years ago. And by dragging me back 30 years to when life was simpler, well, mine was anyway, it's made me realise something I never understood before. Silence isn't really about sound. Listening to Horlsips blasting out The Man Who Built America at 95dB, my mind is quieter than it has been for a long time. And this kind of silence is wonderful. Maybe this is what all those millions of people who meditate are after. Silence is golden. Hardly news to the world as a whole, but it is to me on a personal experiential level. I always thought it meant absence of sound, but it doesn't, it's about mental silence, inner peace, something I'm not used to. And I like it.
Zombies are coming.They might arrive around 2075.
Yesterday's Times ran an article on an experiment by the University of Southampton that claimed to demonstrate brain to brain communications. The claim was that 'they have created a system that allows brain to brain communication, sending messages formed by one person's brain signals through an internet connection to another person's brain many miles away. Let's get right to the point here. By typing this blog entry, I am creating thoughts in your brain many miles away via the internet, so that bit at least is not new. So the only possible significance of this experiment is if it were somehow to demonstrate being able to put thoughts into someone else's brain directly without using sensory input, e.g. vision. But as far as I can tell, it doesn't. It uses a flashing LED instead of letters on a screen, but that seems to be the main difference, except that the input uses simple thought recognition instead of typing, also well established now, though sadly still primitive. I explained this to the journalist, and was rather surprised to see he still ran the story. When he first contacted me, it sounded like someone had managed to create specific thoughts in a brain without using sensory inputs, which would have been very exciting.
Libby Purves has an article in today's Times arguing that people should expect to pay for content and not expect it for free. She makes one good point: 'until food, clothes, housing and transport are doled out free, content-makers need to be paid'. I would only edit that slightly into 'content-makers need to make a living' but that apparently small difference is key to the debate. I agree that content makers need to survive, so we need money, but I disagree that the payment has to be direct. It isn't necessary that the paper pays, nor that content consumers will necessarily have to pay.
Among a great many other people, I was rather surprised to see yet another politician, albeit a popular one in Barack Obama, getting a Nobel peace prize. He may have done great things, but at that level, he is more than adequately rewarded already - for a US president trying to cultivate world peace is, or at least should be, essentially part of the job.
I doubt if I can add any great wisdom to this debate, but am blogging it anyway because it was the very first issue we did at school, in a religion class in 1974, when we looked at the future of euthanasia. It was the start of my futurology life.
The papers reported the UK's new rules on assisted suicide this morning. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/law/article6845582.ece
That's it, the final straw for me. I am sick of 'upgrades'. In the age of spin, the very word has been re-defined to mean change. Often 'upgrades' are actually significant downgrades. We are bombarded daily by spinners telling us how their company has wrecked a perfectly good system to give 'an improved customer service', or 'for our safety and security'. This morning's assault on our household is that we have finally been subjected to Sky TV's rollout of their terrible new 'upgrade' to their electronic programme guide (EPG). The old one was bad and a poor effort compared to what should reasonably have been expected given the importance of EPGs. I'd only have given it 1 out of 10 at best. However, the new one is much worse, and since they control the software on my box, I was never given a choice and can't go back to the old one (until enough of us complain I guess). The blurb highlights 'exciting new features', a new search facility and a 'mini-TV'. I am certain that I will never want to use either of them. The improvements I really want is for it to take less time to lock on to each channel as I channel hop, or that I could adjust the speed at which the channels hop by to my own speed reading pace (too slow on my old box, too fast on the new one). Or a major breakthrough for Sky: let me choose a full range of EPG options like any other company would have done in their first edition. But missing these real upgrades and adding useless ones is bad. They have no vision, but that's true of lots of companies. What is really bad is that they have actually removed one of the most important features. If you have dozens of programmes recorded (as I have), when you enter the guide, you could just hit the up arrow and it would take you straight to the last thing you recorded, which is what you want to watch probably about 90% of the time. Now you have to cursor very slowly through the entire list to get to it. That is not my idea of an upgrade. I imagine that every customer who ever records anything will be highly irritated by this loss, far more than they will be excited by any of the new features.
There has been a lot of debate the last few days since the police told parents off for not policing their kids access to social sites, that are regularly infiltrated by paedophiles intent on grooming their kids. I don't often agree with the police, I think they are usually far too politically correct and take the wrong side too often. On this occasion though, they are right. Parents should do more to alert their kids to the dangers. One line of argument that has been cited too often and too loudly is that parents can't possibly keep up with IT, which their kids can obviously manage to do much more easily. I am amazed that such an argument gets any support.
I get asked every other day by students how the brain might be connected to the machine world for purposes such as mind backup, and how we can live forever electronically in principle. So here for my own convenience at least is a quick summary of the concept as technology stands today. Note that I don't develop the technology, I just follow and predict it and figure out some of the implications and occasionally invent potential solutions to obvious bottlenecks.
The customer is in conflict with the regulator, simple as that.
Labels: age and sex discrimination
http://futurizon.com/articles/Sustainability.pdf is a new Powerpoint presentation on sustainability and climate change, covering many aspects of sustainability including climate and physical resourecs, but also social aspects, and the impacts of IT. I wrote it for the World Futures Society conference where I will present it on 19th July.
Yesterday G2 (a section of The Guardian) carried a fun article by Tanya Gold about a world without men, now that scientists can apparently make sperm from embryonic stem cells. There have been numerous articles in the past few years on how women no longer need men. Actually, we won't need women either when we can make artificial wombs, but let's avoid that avenue for now. Let's also ignore the fact that the scientists who have made this possible are mostly men. But let's still have some fun with this debate.
I am just home from Switzerland. I often use trains there and they almost always run on time - I was 15 minutes late once when there was over a metre of snow but otherwise have always arrived within a minute of schedule. And they are cheap, especially for locals who buy a 'half tax' card that gives them 50% off for a year, for about £70. The inappropriately named Gatwick Express, which is painfully slow and ludicrously expensive was a quick reminder that I was back in Britain.
Labels: future rail trains
An interview with Tim Berners-Lee recently highlighted his belief that the web needs to be studied scientifically as a source of potential emergent behaviours. Emergence is usually considered a threat, where a complex system can exhibit behaviour that was unpexted, because of unexpected complex interactions among system components. In nature, 50 year waves happen because of the rare(every 50 years at a particular place) interaction of waves coming from different directions, and they can sink ships. On the web, waves of information can bring down servers and even large sections of the net. But it isn't just waves that can casue problems. The internet is a very multidimensional entity, and indeed, even the world wide web is only one of the services running on it, albeit arguably the most important one.
Right now, I'm listening to Bruce Springsteen on Spotify. It is a track I bought 25 years ago, but only have it on vinyl, and I no longer have a working record player. My spotify track list so far is almost all comprised of tracks that I already own on vinyl, many dating back to the 70s when i was a teenager, so it is very much a tool for reliving memories for me. I wonder how many other users are treating it as an easy way to rescue tracks they already own, rather than for getting access to new stuff. I suspect the estimates of how much money is being lost must overstate the value. I've often thought I would like to be able to drag my vinyl collection to a recycling centre, receiving the tracks back on MP3 instead. Hopefully for free, or for nominal costs, since I've already paid my dues for them. But even though I can't, not here anyway, Spotify has filled that need, almost. A few of my records aren't on Spotify, so I can't get them that way. After the goldrush, by Prelude for example (though there are variants by lesser artists), or any track by Slik. It has lots of errors too. It lists 'the last time' by Nena, as 'After the goldrush'. but not bad for a new enterprise. It also has crashed a few times, and even de-installed once in the few weeks I've had it. But not bad as a first effort.
New Scientist 6 june carries an interesting article about inflatable towers that could be used to reach the first 20km into space, (based on a 15km tower on top of a mountain). At 20km height, visibility can reach 600km, and it is as dark as space. So it would have potentially large tourism revenue prospects that would help offset costs for space launches. Given that most of the fuel in a rocket is used in the first part of the trip, just carrying the fuel to the next part, it would greatly reduce space flight costs.
Schadenfreude, why isn't there an English word for it, when it is so clearly part of all of us? Are we Brits just too pretentious to admit it could be? Anyway...
Nice article in New Scientist 16 May about spitefulness, which is deeply ingrained in human nature. It seems to have evolved as a way of ensuring cooperation by punishing those that abuse trust and cooperation. Looking at wider human problems, I wonder if it isn't the underlying cause of wars, along with selfishness. People want peace, but those that are peaceful are often taken advantage of by those who are selfish and want to further their own interests at others' expense. If you don't defend yourself, you will eventually get attacked and your stuff taken from you. So we are forced to invest valuable resources in defence to make sure others leave us alone, which leaves everyone worse off.
Excellent piece in yesreday's Times by Sue Palmer, from her book 21st Century boys. She argues that the natural behaviour of teenage boys is being blocked, with no acceptable outlet thanks to impacts of feminism and marketing. I would add liberalism to her list. Western society is now one where only feminine behaviour is accepted without question, and almost every aspect of masculinity is condemned. Teenage boys are essentially blocked by social attitudes from contact with adult men and have no means of learning by example from good male role models.
Lots of stuff recently about the demise of TV, with half the commentary saying TV will suffer because of new sets with internet access, thereby offering global channel choice with no subscription, and the other half saying how Murdoch and co will start to charge for news sites, and make it much harder to get content for free.
Labels: future TV and music
It seems almost weekly now that some significant advance happens in the solar power field. One of the traditional problems with panels is the nasty chemicals used in their production. Now it seems that single layer cells can do the same job as multilayer cells, thanks to layers of quantum dots deposited into channels in the surface, that allow much more light to be absorbed and converted into electrical energy. With each such advance, the potential for solar power to provide the bulk of our energy needs comes closer. Deserts could make far more power than mankind needs, without all the problems associated with technologies such as nuclear, wind or 'clean' coal. I just wish we could steer far more of the climate change dollars becoming available into this field to expedite it. It is becoming ever more clear of the potential advantages of solar compared to other forms of clean energy. Wind and wave are second hand solar energy solutions, much less reliable, and their manufacturing and running costs won't benefit from Moore's law, which will work well in solar. Solar needs no moving parts, and that advantage more than any pretty much guarantees that it will ultimately win in the energy market. It has lots of problems today, but all of those look soluble to imaginative engineering, and one by one they are all being solved. The future of energy looks very sunny.
Labels: solar power
IT stuff is getting smaller all the time, which is generally a good thing, but of course that means that gadgets will end up in the washing machine increasingly often. Engineers have used this as an obvious failure scenario for ages, and the problem has been a stimulus for innovations such as fabric based electronics. However, I was still genuinely and pleasantly surprised when my daughter's iPod was thoroughly washed this week and survived, apparently none the worse for the ordeal. Well done Apple! Modern kit should be designed to cope with events like this, but it is still a refeshing change to see gadgets that can actually cope with a 1600 rpm spin after a 90 mins wash when so much emphasis seems to be on making things cheap and disposable. I for one can't wait till we can take such robustness for granted, but I don't think I will have to wait too long.
Labels: iPod washing machine robustness
As weak signals go, recent press about the differential conditions in the public and private sectors is as good as they get. People in the private sector see their conditions worsen year on year, with pensions being hit hard over the last few years, and now the threat of widespread redundancies in every sector, bonuses slashed and real terms pay cuts. In stark constrast, the public sector has grown enormously, and with the populations in some consituencies heavily dependent on public sector jobs, government has treated them very well to maintain popularity. Doctors and nurses have seen their salaries increase enormously, as have many other roles, and many new nonsense jobs have been created to indulge political correctness of all flavours, especially in local government. People in the civil service receive an average of 4% more pay than their equivalents in the private sector, but that is on top of far better pension provision, far greater job security, far less stress,lower workloads, more tolerance of sick leave, early retirement, and virtually guaranteed career progression.
I am very reluctant to get any medical treatment that involves going to hospital. I don't mind needles, the smell of antiseptic, and don't mind looking at the sight of blood, even my own, I've even watched a few minor operations being performed on me before. What worries me now is that there is such a high chance of catching a potentially fatal hospital-induced infection from a filthy ward, or having a doctor or nurse kill me through negligence or incompetence. I know they are taught not to build emotional bonds with their patients in case they kill them (or they die for other reasons) so they mightn't even feel any more guilty than I will if I make a typo while writing this. So I would only go to hospital for stuff that is in itself life threatening. Doctors bury their errors, and many nurses have become lazy and arrogant on the back of misplaced public worship.
Labels: NHS deaths infections