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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Future superhumans: from microchips to microdoses

What would you do to augment yourself? Over the last 24 hours I’ve found myself discussing three very different approaches to making us future superhumans.

Conscious Control

First, I met Simon Fox of BfB Labs, a London-based start-up building ‘emotionally responsive games’. The company’s first game, Champions of the Shengha, will be launched on 27th September 2016 on Indiegogo. It uses a Bluetooth connected heart-rate monitor to bring a different dimension to a classic style: the trading card/duel, in the style of Yu-Gi-Oh. By following instructions to control your breathing, and so moderate your heart rate, you can enhance your power-ups.

Adding this sort of gamification to what is fundamentally a meditatory technique for managing your mind state is really interesting. Imagine a whole generation of kids who grow up associating calmness and with power. Kids who have a well-trained ability to consciously control their body’s natural responses to stress and anxiety.

This is just the company’s first game. You can imagine how many of the most beneficial components of ancient techniques of self-control could be brought bang up to date in a game environment.

Basic Bionics

The second stimulus for this blog post was a conversation with Danny Kelly on BBC WM about the latest people to insert RFID chips into their hands and call themselves transhuman. This isn’t anything new: people have been attracting publicity through this approach for a few years now. Every time it seems to startle a few people, even though the technology is pretty rudimentary — no different to tagging a pet.

It does open up some interesting possibilities, even if it is very much a technology for today. In the future machines will be able to recognise us from our faces or our heart beat signature. No need for internal electronics.

Meanwhile though, opening doors at work with a wave of your hand is one thing. Being able to pay for a pint as if by magic is quite another.

I can see how that would appeal to future superhumans with a taste for beer.

Microdosing

The third spur was a brilliant piece by Wired’s Olivia Solon on ‘microdosing’ of psychoactive substances as a means of improving at work performance. Tiny amounts of LSD or psilocybin (magic mushrooms) are taken every few days to maintain a low-level boost to focus and mood.

As Solon notes, this is not a new phenomenon, but it is one with a growing number of adherents. I don’t mind admitting that if I were both younger and braver, I might give it a go. But having watched a few people on bad trips in the 90s, illicit pills and powders have always terrified me.

Future Superhumans: Train, Augment, Enhance

These three ideas present three glimpses of ways that we might make all of us into future superhumans. Mind and body training so subtly integrated into games that we just don’t notice the improvements we’re making in our own capabilities. Electronic devices inserted subcutaneously to give us access to systems and services. And drugs to extract the maximum potential from our own minds.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Future jobs: How many will they employ?

Microsoft Surface and the Future Laboratory have produced a report on what graduate future jobs might exist that we haven’t considered yet. It’s an interesting list of careers likely to appeal to anyone of school age now wondering what might be their opportunities in a world much changed from today. ‘Ethical technology advocate’, ‘digital cultural commentator’, ‘space tour guide’, ‘virtual habitat designer’, ‘freelance biohacker’. All of these seem likely future careers.

My concern is not so much whether these future jobs are realistic though. It’s about how many people they will really employ.

Let’s take the full list and compare them to current jobs to get a rough idea:

Virtual Habitat Designer

This is someone who designs virtual reality environments. The best current analog I can suggest is the computer games industry, which currently employs around 200,000 people. (http://ukie.org.uk/research)

Ethical Technology Advocate

Someone to negotiate the moral hazards of robotics and AI. Today around 20,000 people are employed in IT consulting in the UK. (http://www.consultancy.uk/consulting-industry/united-kingdom)

Digital Cultural Commentator

A social media maven. There are around 64,000 journalists in the UK. (http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/6000-drop-number-uk-journalists-over-two-years-18000-more-prs-labour-force-survey-shows/)

Freelance Biohacker

Around 9,000 people are today employed in ‘industrial biotechnology and bioenergy’. (http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/documents/capital-economics-biotech-britain-july-2015/)

IoT (Internet of Things) Data Creative

Someone who extracts value from the morass of data produced by the IoT. There are maybe 20,000 data scientists in the world right now. Let’s generously assume half of those are in the UK: 10,000. (http://solutionsreview.com/data-integration/so-how-many-data-scientists-are-there/)

Space Tour Guide

I couldn’t find good figures for the number of tour guides in the UK. There are 130 jobs listed on LinkedIn for tour guides. Let’s be generous and say there are 10,000 tour guides in the UK.

Personal Content Curator

A concierge service for your mind and media.

We’ve already looked at journalists so let’s compare this to a different personal service: personal trainers. There are around 23,000 personal trainers in the UK. (http://www.ibisworld.co.uk/market-research/personal-trainers.html)

Rewilding Strategist

Restoring our damaged biome. Today around 18,000 people are employed in the UK in conservation. (https://www.rspb.org.uk/Images/naturalfoundations_tcm9-291148.pdf)

Sustainable Power Innovator

The energy industry is predicted to employ 200,000 people by 2023. (https://www.prospects.ac.uk/jobs-and-work-experience/job-sectors/energy-and-utilities/overview-of-the-energy-and-utilities-sector-in-the-uk)

Human Body Designer

There are around 25,000 surgeons in the UK. (https://www.rcseng.ac.uk/media/media-background-briefings-and-statistics/surgery-and-the-nhs-in-numbers)

Future Jobs: Exciting for the few

Imagine that these future jobs experience explosive growth and that each one comes to employ as many people as are employed in each of the comparable jobs I have suggested. This is fantastically, spectacularly unlikely. But let’s say it happened. These ten future job titles would represent around 580,000 jobs in the UK.

In the next twenty years I believe we’ll lose about 800,000 jobs in call centres alone in the UK. Likely another few hundred thousand each in retail, logistics, manufacturing and professional services. Millions of jobs where machines are starting to encroach on human employment.

This isn’t to say that there won’t be new, exciting growth areas like those described above. There absolutely will. But right now, no-one has suggested many industries that will create mass employment. Certainly not mass employment with reasonable pay and development prospects.

Even if we focus just on graduates, as this report does, the picture doesn’t look good. About 400,000 people start university courses each year in the UK. The future jobs above might represent enough for just one and a half years of undergraduate output.

If I were an undergraduate right or A-level student right now, I would doubtless be excited by the prospect of being a ‘sustainable power innovator’ or ‘digital cultural commentator’. But I would also be concerned about just how many jobs will be out there by the time I graduate.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Mobile data: gluttony and the 5G future

I’ve been away. And I’ve learned something: I am a mobile data glutton.

Having been to many places recently where I could use my normal mobile data allowance (thanks to Three’s ‘Feel at Home’ offer) I didn’t think to check whether Germany was under the same deal. It isn’t. So I had to go and get myself a local sim card.

The best package I could find on the high street was five gig of mobile data at around 20mbps on 4G for EU35. I thought that would be loads for a two week stay.

How wrong I was.

Limiting my consumption to a few minutes each day and the minimum amount of work (I was, after all, on holiday), I burned two gigabytes of mobile data in three days.

Crikey.

How much must I use ordinarily? I’ve never thought to check precisely. I knew it was enough to justify an unlimited package. But I thought that was what you might call a justification on behavioural grounds. I thought that I couldkeep to a limit by changing my behaviour but I didn’t want to. I’d rather pay a little extra and not have to think about it.

Now I realise that, even with drastic limits to my consumption, there is little chance I could keep to any sort of available limit.

This got me thinking. Am I normal? Walking around, seeing so many people with phones tethered to their pocket power packs, I figure I am at most only slightly ahead of the curve. You can’t play Pokemon Go without data.

This explains why my all-you-can-eat data tariff got rather more expensive recently. The networks are having to deal with a generation for whom a connection is an expectation. And that connection brings all their media. Not just web pages and mails but IM, music, video, games. Just as our phones are tethered to our pockets, we are tethered to the world by our mobile data connection. With our entire digital lives flowing through this connection, our data consumption is growing rapidly — roughly 40% worldwide between 2014 and 2015 according to this analysis.

The operator response to this is to tweak tariffs to try to balance consumption against costs. It’s not free for them to carry our data — far from it. Hence the ongoing Net Neutrality debate. Operators both fixed and mobile want rewarding for carrying the most difficult traffic for them: video streams primarily.

Those on the other side of the debate argue that they should pay for a service and be allowed to use it how they like. It’s more complex than that, but commercially that’s the fundamentals.

What’s the alternative? We could pay more for our data, and according to the GSMA, some of us are. All-you-can-eat plans like mine are becoming more expensive, or not quite so limitless.

But this feels like only a partial solution. Can operators keep pumping investment into larger and larger pipes to carry our traffic to and from base stations? Both financially and architecturally this could be a big challenge.

Hence the inclusion of peer-to-peer and multiple network components in the standards for 5G. Imagine every phone is a base station, with traffic flowing from device to device until it winds its way to its destination. A shared network of mobile data gluttony.

There are still problems to address: security, latency. And of course, power.

Expect to see more and more people with their phones tethered to their pockets if batteries don’t improve in the meantime.

Tom Cheesewright