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Society Will Continue to Accept New Technology

Three quarters of UK adults have a smartphone. 24m of us log into Facebook every day.

Ten years ago a state of the art smartphone was a Handspring Treo 650. Suffice to say I was (nearly) the only one of my friends to have one of these. The closest thing to Facebook in 2004 was MySpace and Friendster. I bet your entire family didn’t share their daily comings and goings on those networks.

My point is that as a race we are capable of adopting new technologies very quickly. In just a decade we have becoming a connected nation, online all the time and comfortable communicating via completely new devices and forms of media.

Some might argue we have adopted these technologies too fast, without sufficient critical challenge. Certainly there is a Facebook backlash. The tech-savvy and privacy conscious have started abandoning this network whose owners choose to push the envelope of what is acceptable use of our private data, only rowing back when the chorus of criticism reaches sufficient volume. Revelations about the abilities of the NSA and GCHQ to tap our other digital communications has left many wary.

But in the mainstream the smartphone and the social network are now standard components of everyday existence. They are core features in an array of digital prosthetics on which we are increasingly reliant. Augmentations for our memory, sense of direction, and social interactivity are accepted. Normal.

This leads me to believe that the next wave of technology coming in will be similarly accepted. Today anyone sporting Google Glass gets a lot of attention. In ten years when smart glasses come free with your data contract and look more like this Kopin prototype? They’ll be as remarkable as an iPhone.

We’ll get over the difference factor but there remain issues to be resolved, as there still are with smartphones and social networks. Earlier this week I was talking to BBC Stoke about a local politician making the latest in a long line of Facebook and Twitter gaffes by public figures. Partly she was just daft (telling the world she once flashed her breasts to get out of a parking fine — she is the cabinet member responsible for transport), but partly she is operating within a fuzzy set of guidelines. An etiquette that is still evolving.

Cameras present one of the clearest challenges to this: how does society respond when everyone is sporting a camera and can shoot video or stills with just a thought or a blink?

I think we’ll adapt. When did you last hear about ‘happy slapping’? I phenomenon rose, became known, then socially unacceptable, and slowly disappeared back out of public sight. No doubt it still happens, but society has boxed it off as an issue.

There will doubtless be ructions when smart glasses become mainstream — they’re already happening in San Francisco. But we’ll adapt.

What might be more challenging is adapting to the increased social imbalances that this technology might bring. Smart glasses and their ilk are human augmentations, even more clearly than having the latest smartphone or PC. People with access to the latest technology will be able to do more than those without, and that is a clear — if not wholly new — issue of material wealth increasing privilege.

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The Future of Food? Grow Your Own – Automatically

A few years ago a large food producer commissioned some research on the future of food. It was a PR exercise, designed to produce some interesting, light-hearted stories. Instead what came back was a pretty stark message: we as families and individuals will all have to produce much of our own food because that’s the only way we can produce enough.

Needless to say, the research was never published. It wasn’t the sort of story they were looking for.

I couldn’t tell you who the producer was, even if I could accurately remember: I was told about it in confidence a few years ago and never saw an actual copy. This is not a piece of rigorously qualified information. But it’s believable in the current context.

The future of food production has become a hot topic. Today, globally, we produce more than enough food to feed everyone — enough for 12bn people according to the UN World Food Programme. But since much of it is fed to livestock (and because we let money get in the way of keeping people alive), we don’t manage to feed all 7bn. In a few years time the population is likely to peak around 9bn. Unless we produce an awful lot more food (twice as much by some estimates) or all cut the amount of meat we eat (the trend is going in the other direction as large economies like India and China develop), we are going to have even more serious problems feeding everyone.

Closer to home there are issues of food security and self-sufficiency. According to a report by the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee last month, the UK has become steadily less self-sufficient over the last twenty years. We now produce just 68% of the food that could be grown here — the rest is imported. Given the current levels of political instability, and the growing effects of climate change, it seems unwise to have so little control over feeding our own population.

In a local context, there are two questions to address: what we eat, and how we produce it. The former has all sorts of answers from the prosaic to the unpalatable (for some). The simplest answer is that we all go vegan, but the simplicity of this answer exposes why it won’t happen: human beings are creatures of desire more than logic. Even if some Californian fad for veganism spread to the entire Western world, it is likely that the developing economies would want their days of unfettered carnivorous gluttony just as they want their chance to experience the economic growth that fossil fuels provided the West. And frankly, it’s hard to argue that they should abide by different rules just because we screwed the world up.

We could continue eating ‘meat’ but in different forms: artificial, insects, etc. I think this will become a proportion of the mix and may eventually displace some livestock production (particularly beef, the most resource intensive). But it’s going to take time.

In the meantime we’re back to that question of production: where does our food come from? There seems to be a growing trend for grow your own. I’m not ahead of the curve on this: just look at the column inches and airtime devoted to gardening, or the waiting lists for allotment spaces. Check out the IncredibleEdible project in Todmorden or the guerilla gardens springing up all over the place. There’s even an app to help you grow and share produce.

But mainstream as this is (up to 5% of all fruit and veg is grown at home based on 2012 figures — the most recent I could find) it’s not at a level that will account for growing international competition for crops, changeable weather, and political instability.

For this to change, growing at home needs to be easier. Automated. Like an appliance.

This may not sound very ‘green fingered’ or organic. But the nature of our time-stretched lives these days (a cliché but a reality) and the fact that not everyone wants to garden, means it’s a reality if we all want regular crops of edible produce.

Imagine this: an indoor appliance the size of a washing machine that feeds, monitors and returns regular crops of salad leaves, tomatoes, herbs, brassicas and potatoes, and does so with a minimal use of water and electricity. All you do is plumb it in and feed it with seeds and nutrients every now and again. It could even monitor your fridge and change the production rate to ensure it only delivers fresh produce as and when you need to restock.

That’s the sort of thing that could become truly mainstream and account for a sensible proportion of our regular produce. And it’s entirely possible with today’s technology: hydroponics, LED grow-lights, cheap microcontrollers and cloud computing. It could be installed anywhere, even for those without a garden. Sure, it’s not as green as growing outdoors, but it is more reliable and less effort, and that’s what people want. And it’s certainly greener than shipping your vegetables half way across the world.

There’s another project to tackle then…

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Note: After this post went out in the News from the Future newsletter last week (sign up here to get posts like this one early), a number of people pointed out that projects like the Urban Cultivator have already tackled this challenge. I’m now wondering if a broken dishwasher can be cheaply recycled into such a device…

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Boosting Your Personal Bandwidth

I’m tired. Sleep deprived. I was at 5live until 1am this morning, only to not appear. I’m not complaining: the death of Robin Williams was both very sad and understandably of greater editorial significance than my regular tech slot.

Being tired is not an unusual state for any of us these days: there’s a lot to do between work and life, partying and kids, sports and hobbies, family and friends. The problem is that when we’re tired we’re not very productive.

Productivity: Goal or Threat?

Productivity is one of those odd qualities, equally praised and vilified. Driven individuals are always seeking life-hacks to boost their personal productivity. But when productivity targets are imposed, it can become ugly and corporate, cold and forceful.

In my privileged position as a self-employed person making ends meet, who also loves their work, productivity is about personal reward for me. Financial, but more importantly, emotional. I value my own success more than the rewards it brings me. Always have (as some of my career choices will show).

This means I am very keen to improve my productivity. But I’m not a great fan of all the rules and methods that are meant to more usefully structure your working day. My work is varied and creative. Strict routines and patterns are hard to maintain and quite often I find they disrupt the natural flow rather than enable it.

Golden Moments

Maybe I’m just not disciplined enough, but I’m focused more on ensuring I make the most of those moments when my brain seems to be firing on all cylinders. These moments are rare, hard to plan for, and they don’t usually come when I’m sat at a desk. The first hour after I wake up is incredible. I regularly whip out my laptop from where it is stored under the bed and knock out a thousand words. That’s fine: my wife is very understanding about the screen glare and key tapping.

But what about those seconds where you can’t access some means of capturing your thoughts?

A couple of times on holiday last week I resorted to paper and that’s cool — though my family may not have noticed (I blame you, Plundernauts), I was actively trying to minimise screen time. But now I have to translate my paper scribblings (‘inky spiders dancing on a page’ is how one teacher described my writing) into something I can a) comprehend and b) use.

Paper Bandwidth

Paper is pretty low-bandwidth and low-fidelity for someone with my very limited graphical ability though. Co-operating on DIY projects with my wife is not easy when even my finest sketches show each component to a totally inaccurate relative scale. Digital devices aren’t always available or convenient either. I once wrote a thousand words on a smartphone on a particularly packed tube ride, but it’s not an experience my wrists would like me to repeat. Sorry for the mental image but I can’t capture Evernotes in the shower (even with voice recognition: I tried).

In short, I’m back to one of my personal hobby horses: for early digital natives like me (my school projects were done in Lotus Ami Pro), there is no higher bandwidth means of capturing our output than the keyboard and mouse. And using this means being seated, ideally at a desk, in a warm, dry and powered environment. We are not always in these environments when inspiration strikes or when our minds enter those incredible states of clarity that occasionally come over us. I want an always-accessible, truly portable, truly practical means of translating my thoughts into actions, products and plans.

Now this might sound pretty invasive.

Surely the smartphone has already turned us into an army of 24-hour workers, always connected to the corporate machine?

Well yes, for some people that is true.

Aren’t you the person who has argued for an ‘analogue week’ in order for us all to disconnect occasionally, re-engage with the physical world, and actually talk to our families?

That is true. But that doesn’t mean that outside that analogue week, I don’t want to be as productive as possible.

I’m pretty sure your family would like to communicate with you, without thinking you might be making digital mental notes about work. You’re bad enough at staying focused when there are any digital devices around.

Again, you (I) have me bang to rights. This will require an even greater level of mental and social discipline than we currently (often fail to) apply to the current generation of technology.

But…but… I can’t help but want it.

Visual to Neural

What is ‘it’ then? There aren’t many great candidates today. However accurate voice interfaces become they are frankly anti-social. It’s bad enough being on a train full of people chatting to their friends, family and colleagues, without adding a load chatting to their machines as well.

Touch and gestures? I suppose some form of learned signing could work, but that ties up your hands, and again it’s like to lack bandwidth. Some people can text at an incredible rate but not faster than they can on a full keyboard. I want an all round improvement.

Neural interfaces? That seems like the obvious route. But these seem to be so far away. The commercial options today are largely limited to binary options: yes and no, left and right. The most sophisticated medical devices in trial might allow the control of artificial limbs but even this incredible feat is a long way from capturing complex thoughts and language.

For the time being if I am going to maximise my personal productivity and take advantage of those moments of insight I’m going to have to do it with today’s technology and the physical interfaces I was born with. Just utilised flexibly at the times that inspiration strikes.

Tom Cheesewright