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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Can digital technologies change government?

I spent a couple of hours yesterday recording a podcast on the future of digital technologies in the relationship between government and citizen. It’s not going to be released until October, when I’ll share a link, but one of the questions spurred more thoughts after the event.

The other guest and I were asked whether the introduction of digital technologies could actually change the structure and mode of operation of government services? Or, whether digital technologies were just replicating the status quo at lower cost and friction.

To date I’ve seen very little evidence that the digital technologies are fundamentally changing the nature of the relationship between government and citizen. Primarily it is reduced friction — on both sides — that has been the benefit. Some groups have started to take advantage of the more open access to data, for example, in order to lobby more effectively for change. There’s now a more streamlined way for groups to influence decision-making with the petitions portal. But neither of these steps is a major shift from the status quo.

A real shift would be a re-connection between power and those affected by it. Britain has one of the most centralised power structures of any developed democracies, with the vast majority of spending being controlled centrally. I think this is problematic for two reasons.

Firstly, however diligent a constituency MP, citizens are basically at the mercy of a power structure that exists potentially hundreds of miles from them and has no first-hand experience of their problems.

Secondly, large, complex, distant systems are always going to be slower at responding to local needs — too slow, in my opinion. There’s a natural tendency to legislate once for the whole country, but even in a small country like Britain, needs vary dramatically across the state.

Could digital technology help to overcome this? They can certainly play a role in speeding the transaction of power, and improving the connection between London and the rest of the country. But really it is more fundamental reform that is needed. Devolution of power and spending so that it sits closer to those that it affects.

This isn’t without its problems. The ‘postcode lottery’ the press love to decry will be viscerally real if power is devolved. There will abslutely be better healthcare, welfare, and education in some places than others. But that may be the price of the possibility of a more responsive democracy that can meet the needs of the people without resorting to artificial exercises in engagement like referenda. As the recent experiment showed, such large-scale exercises in direct democracy become baskets for all sorts of dissatisfaction, not just the issue at hand. They are also far to slow, expensive and cumbersome to be any sort of regular mechanism.

Digital technologies can do much. But sometimes, the only answer is political.

 

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

Can we fix the future?

Can we fix the future? Why technology asks us questions, but it doesn’t always have the answers.

I often end my talks with a simple phrase:

“Design tomorrow.”

It’s a little cheesy but it communicates succinctly an idea. That there is no such thing as absolute fate. Or as Sarah Connor put it in Terminator 2:

“There’s no fate but what we make.”

Put another way, we’re responsible for creating our own futures. As the computer scientist Alan Kay said:

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

Right now we have a lot of inventing to do.

I often get asked what we’re going to do about coming crises. In jobs or climate. I’m asked these questions in part because I’m a futurist: it’s my job to address them. But the context of these questions is often in a discussion about technology. There’s often a sense from the questioner that technology caused these crises. And so technology should offer us the answers.

Can technology fix the future?

Another idea I explain in almost every talk I give, is that technology is the biggest driver of change right now. Technology has no agency, or intent. But it has two effects that combine to accelerate change.

The first is the lowering of friction: fast communications, digital services, shared knowledge — all these things make innovation quicker, easier and more universally accessible. Whether it’s starting a new business or building a better mousetrap, we are all empowered with more tools and information than ever before. And so we can make change more quickly.

The second is the competitive tension this accelerated innovation creates. If our competitors and those we are compared against move forward, we must move forward to. Incredibly this effect leaps market boundaries: the quality of service we get from Amazon we begin to expect from government etc.

What’s important to note is that though the combination of these effects accelerate change, they have no effect on its direction. It doesn’t drive change for better or for worse. It simply drives change faster.

Steering the Bus

The result of this is that operating in business or in government today feels a bit like steering the bus in Speed. We’re going quickly whether we like it or not. The only choice we have to make is the direction of travel.

There are those who would like to slow things down, but notwithstanding a globe-spanning EMP burst or all out nuclear war, I don’t see that happening. You can’t un-invent technology.

So instead, if we want to fix the future, we must look at our direction of travel and how we plot our route.

My job as an applied futurist is to inform the former, and help with the latter. The Applied Futurist’s Toolkit is an attempt to do just that.

But I’m not driving the bus. Whether or not we can fix the future isn’t down to technology. It is down to the decisions we make. As societies, nations, a race.

Can we fix the future? Ultimately I’m optimistic. Because as Tony Stark said:

“By default, optimists make the world, because pessimists never even try.”

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Utilitarian Future: Guns, Grammar Schools and the Greater Good

Utilitarian Future: For the Greater Good?

None of this matters if the people you care about are the people in those anecdotes. Or if you don’t believe the objective of government policy should be ‘the best for the most’. But few politicians would readily admit that they are happy to let the majority suffer for the good of the few. At least not quite so explicitly.

So we’re left with a question: why do we so often let anecdote and emotion defeat data and reason?

I simply don’t think we have a culture of reason when it comes to big decisions. For all our advances and sophistication, we still have a lizard-brain culture of emotion.

We don’t need to be robots in a utilitarian future. But we do need to learn to trust the numbers and facts a little more. And right now with the constant disparaging of ‘experts’, we’re going in quite the other direction.

*In the interests of transparency I must add that I can’t find any good data on this. I have trawled the search engines but no-one seems to have done the research yet. But here’s a comparison point from the LA Times. The Violence Policy Center in the US counted 259 ‘justifiable’ — i.e. self defence — homicides in 2012. In the same year there were 8,342 criminal homicides using guns, 20,666 suicides with guns, and 548 fatal unintentional shootings, according to the FBI’s Supplemental Homicide Report.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Quadrooter: fragmentation and diversity

The latest threat to our precious mobile phones meant I spent some time in the studio on Monday, explaining the ‘Quadrooter’ vulnerabilities to audiences on BBC News and 5live. In reality, the threat to most of us is pretty limited. three out of the ‘quad’ are already patched for most people. A fourth patch is inbound. And there is no evidence that anyone has taken advantage of what seem like pretty tough holes to squeeze some malware through.

What is interesting about the Quadrooter vulnerabilities is what makes them potentially such a great threat, and also diminishes their impact: the fragmentation and homogeneity at different points in the mobile phone supply chain.

The Phone: A Chip Butty

Let’s start at the beginning. Though widely reported as an ‘Android flaw’, in reality these security holes sit rather deeper than that. Between the Android operating system and the hardware itself — the central processor, memory, graphics drivers and modem — sit a series of ‘drivers’. Software that Android commands to to move bits around.

Only a couple of companies make the core hardware in most Android phones. You can think of these phones like chip butties. The likes of Sony, Samsung, LG and HTC might provide the bread (battery on one side, screen on the other). But the chips in the middle only come from a couple of chip shops. One of these is Qualcomm, affected here.

Because there are only a few chip shops, of which Qualcomm is arguably the largest, when there’s a problem with their chips, a lot of people are affected. Around 900 million in this case. Four exploits affecting nearly a billion phones? That sounds like a very appealing target for hackers.

Except that it’s not quite that simple.

A Fragmented Single Market

Every implementation of Qualcomm’s chips by the likes of Sony etc, is slightly different. To create a piece of malware to take advantage of the flaws in the drivers, you may need to tailor it to the devices you’re targeting.

Suddenly that juicy target of 900 million devices starts to shrink, and the work to target all of them starts to grow.

As in nature, diversity is safer than a monoculture.

The problem with this is that any fix for the flaws takes time to make it through the supply chain: Qualcomm supplies it to the manufacturers, the manufacturers roll it into their own update systems, we then have to accept and run the update — albeit many of us now do this automatically.

Hence, three months after Check Point revealed the flaws to Qualcomm, one of them remains un-patched for most of us.

Quadrooter: Not an Android Flaw

Ultimately, the supply chain all ends in the same place: Android. Though each manufacturer adds their own special sauce, it’s fundamentally a single market for the software that sits on top of these devices. And that’s the bit most of us care about.

Quadrooter is not an Android flaw. But it it has highlighted the quirks of the Android supply chain. The question is, would we want it any different?

Should smartphones be like the PC market of the late 90s and early noughties, where the software provider — Microsoft — held the customer relationship and extracted most of the margin from any sale? Or would we prefer a much more diverse OS market, with manufacturers holding more control over the software as well as the hardware?

I believe the market is where it is for a reason. Phones are a fundamentally different proposition to computers: we care a lot more about their aesthetics because they are a very visible accessory. The manufacturers, still more au fait with technological differentiation than brand management, are scared of becoming the new Gateways, stripped of profits by the OS.

They cling to as much of the technology stack as they can to maintain some control. But simple economics mean there will be shared components at the back end, and a shared app marketplace at the front. This seems to work pretty well, at least for users, who have unprecedented access to an incredible array of devices at unthinkably low cost.

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

After the future

We paint vivid pictures of the next milestone in our lives, but barely even sketch too far beyond that. What happens after the future?

At the age of 14 I realised that I would be 21 when the new millennium came. At a milestone age at a milestone point in history. Unusually for me, I remember that moment very clearly. Where I was. What I thought. I was excited. What would my adult self be doing? How would the world have changed?

That was my future. I never thought much beyond that. What came after the future?

I only considered that prospect a few years later. When I started to ask myself what sort of career I wanted. I decided I wanted to be self-employed by thirty. I hit that goal at 27, through as much luck as judgement. I scraped the arbitrary earnings target I appended to that goal through some creative mathematics.

I hit that milestone. Then I started to think about the next step.

This is the way we think about tomorrow. In steps, chunks. We paint vivid pictures of the next milestone but rarely even sketch too far beyond that. About what happens after the future.

Thinking to and through

I’m an advocate of thinking more about the immediate future. I strongly believe we are more at risk from artefacts on the near horizon than the far. And there are unmet opportunities in the same blindspot. We don’t think enough about the near future.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t have to think beyond. About our destination as much as our journey. Or at least the next waypoint along it.
Not doing this carries great risks. Public policy is a great and obvious example. Few politicians these days seem to expound a vision of where they want the territory they represent to be in a few decades. But they’re very happy to address the problems of the day, at least verbally.

The issue comes when these two visions conflict. Short term economic growth and long term climate change. Short term employment figures and long term automation trends. Short term state costs and long term social cohesion.

If you have no vision for the long term, the short term always wins.

Narrative and evidence

In the short term, narrative and anecdote carry the most weight. We’re getting better at processing and applying data over short periods, but it carries inherent challenges. Like the example of welfare reforms in Riverside County, which became the inspiration for nationwide welfare reforms in the US under the Clinton administration. As documented in a recent episode of 99% Invisible, (itself pulled from Marketplace’s The Uncertain Hour), the initial analysis of these reforms was very positive. A focus on driving welfare recipients into jobs raised their income significantly and cut the state’s welfare costs.

Everyone’s a winner.

Except they weren’t. Go back a few years later and those on the trial programme — which by this point had already become national policy — were performing significantly worse than those who had been offered education and training rather than being forced into low-skilled, low-paid jobs. Later, during the 2008 recession, those jobs were the first to be lost. Many of those who had escaped welfare had only done so temporarily.

After the future: a vision of the far horizon

The far horizon is always hazy and indistinct. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to sketch it. Like in the example above: an appropriate weight given to long term benefits of growing skill and education levels may have helped to tip the balance against an ultimately regressive policy development.

This might sound overly optimistic. But we seem to be entering an age where rhetoric holds sway over evidence. Narratives about the long-term future — “your childrens’ future” — can be incredibly powerful.

The debate about the immediate future is shrill. In both business and public policy, strong, positive narratives about what happens after the future could be exactly the counter-balance we need.

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