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Your privacy or your life

The Nest is a play about health data, commissioned by the GMPSTRC and supported by the Wellcome Trust. This may not sound like promising material, but writer Rosie MacPherson and theatre company SBC have crafted a touching and funny piece about the changing relationship between parent and child, deftly addressing along the way our complex and often ill-informed attitudes to personal data.

I’m introducing a couple of performances of the play this week and chairing a post-show debate. Last night’s audience was a mix of professionals attending the Informatics for Health conference and the general public.

Pay for your privacy

What intrigued me most from the debate was the conversation about the trade-off between commercial interests and health. The audience was largely amenable to giving their intimate health and behavioural data over to advertisers, if this would help fund a system that monitored their health.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. This is not a major leap from the trade-off with which billions of us around the world have become very familiar: sharing intimate information with Facebook in exchange for the platform it provides for that global conversation. But the level of monitoring depicted in the play is much greater: every move, purchase, utterance — even the contents of the fridge.

What concerns me is the extension of the rich/poor divide to cover our right to privacy. Clearly, the wealthy can already buy greater privacy. But allowing advertisers intimate access to your home in return for maintaining your health somehow seems more icky than trading off privacy against less fundamental services like messaging or photo sharing — or the ability to control your home with your voice.

A right to health?

I guess it’s about what’s at stake. Our National Health Service presents at least the idea — albeit unmatched in reality (or law)— that everyone has an equal right to good health. For those who can’t pay to eliminate the intrusion to have to give up their privacy, in return for equivalent support, just feels wrong.

The evidence from the audience is that I am unusual in this concern. But what the audience also accepted is that we are all uninformed consumers of these services. Will we give away our privacy before we get informed about the consequences? Only through more efforts like The Nest will we really open up the conversation beyond the industry professionals and into the wider public.

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Giant ping pong balls at the speed of light

I’m fond of telling people that in the last twenty years, technology has changed the way the world works but in the next twenty, it will start to change how the world looks. Materials science is perhaps one of the most exciting areas of research right now, with money flooding into research into two dimensional and meta materials with incredible properties.

Think about the difference between the world before plastics and the world after. Think about the shapes, weights and textures of so many objects that would have been previously unfamiliar. Now imagine a transformation of the same magnitude in the materials from which we make cars, buildings, and clothes. Think about a world where the previously impossible, becomes possible, because we have materials that are stronger, lighter, more insulating or more conductive.

Of course, not all of this is going to happen in the next twenty years. There’s still a lot of fundamental science and manufacturing development to be done on these new materials. But we’ll see early applications that will shift our expectations for what certain objects look like.

Rockets & shuttles

Take the Breakthrough Starshot programme, an ambitious plan announced in April 2016 to send a spacecraft to a planet orbiting our nearest star.

We all have ideas in our heads about what spacecraft look like. We’ve spent years — decades — absorbing news of rockets and shuttles, and having our imaginations stretched by depictions of craft in science fiction. But the ‘nanocraft’ planned for this project look nothing like that.

The latest research suggests that they might be giant ping pong balls, a few metres across but weighing just a couple of grams, including all of the electronics. To put that into context, the cereal bar I just ate was 30 grams: I just ate the equivalent of fifteen space ships.

As you can probably guess, there will be no passengers on this craft, which will be accelerated up to a fraction of the speed of light in just a few minutes by being pounded with photons from a giant laser array here on earth.

Making these giant ping pong balls will test the limits of our understanding of materials. You may never see one. But the money that goes into their development will probably drive changes in objects you see every day.

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Hi. How are you?

Hi. How are you?

This question is such a standard part of every day life. One that we are so used to answering in non-specific fashion. “Yeah, fine thanks. You?” But today we can answer this question with greater specificity than ever.

Heart rate, blood oxygen and sugar, perspiration, body fat percentage: all of these things can be measured day-by-day, even minute-by-minute, by an array of relatively low-cost wearables. And from those base metrics we can extrapolate even more: fitness, and stress.

The sensors providing these measurements will become ubiquitous as their cost and size falls. Just a couple of days ago I was speaking to the BBC about printable transistors that might make it cheap enough to give disposable milk cartons an internet connection. We will certainly be in a position to connect our clothes.

You already know

So, how are we? In many contexts, that question will no longer need our minds to mediate an answer. Whether it’s our doctors, or our employers, they might know.

Already, thousands of workers around the world have agreed to wear company-issued fitness trackers feeding information back to corporate dashboards. As the NHS struggles to bring down costs in the face of an ageing population, the opportunity to remotely manage chronic conditions and detect new conditions early is hugely attractive.

Pre-cog assistants

Some researchers are starting to take the application of this data even further. At the University of Southern California, they’re trying to use a mix of physiological data with language analysis to predict arguments between couples and create an app that can intervene with calming measures.

This might seem absurd to us now but this is what the future cyborg life looks like: machines compiling huge amounts of data about every aspect of our lives and bodies, and returning that data to us with insight — or instructions.

Perhaps this is a way for us to be our best selves. An informed and objective conscience sitting on our shoulder, telling us to take a break, skip that donut, or walk away from the argument. But it could also make us lazy and irresponsible, passing the buck to the machine — especially when it fails to steer us.

We’re capable of so much. Maybe the focus should be on maximising that potential, developing our own self-control before we outsource it to machines.

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What’s in a name? The transience of digital identity

What was your first piece of online identity? An Xbox Live handle, if you’re young perhaps? An ICQ handle, if you’re older? I’d argue the most common answer would be an email address.

A couple of weeks back,I headed into the Radio 4 studios to explain why EE is shutting down the Freeserve, Orange and Wanadoo email services — and why it can.

It may amaze the more tech-savvy, but these services continue to play an important role for some, in their business and home lives. It doesn’t have to be their primary email address that’s at stake. Because these addresses were often their first email account, they are the ones that many people used to set up everything else. For those who hadn’t started with Hotmail or Yahoo, or made the jump to Gmail, these are the recovery addresses for their Facebook, Skype and other accounts.

These people are probably in the minority. My guess is that the vast bulk of the storage underpinning the ageing Orange email systems is full of spam and unwanted newsletters. Of course, because EE owns the domain names — everything after the @ symbol and before the ‘co’ or ‘com’out— and the servers on which the service operates, it is well within its rights to do this. You might argue that more notice would have been welcome, but this is the reality of fast moving technology: things have to die eventually.

What interests me is what this means for our digital identity.

What’s in a name?

I am Tom Cheesewright. But I am also @bookofthefuture and linkedin.com/in/tomcheesewright/. These are more than mere addresses, just like a home is more than a house. But like a house, for many of us at least, we don’t really own these addresses. They are leased to us by a large and distant organisation over which we, at least individually, have very little influence. At any time these identities could disappear, or change radically — as Facebook’s interface has so often done.

What happens then to our digital identity? The unique facets of ourselves that we present on these different channels. The relationships we have built up conducted only in these venues? Already there are many casualties of the fast pace of change — Friendster, MySpace, FriendsReunited. What happens when Facebook dies?

Own your identity

There are pieces of digital identity that are uniquely and perpetually mine: my domain names. I own bookofthefuture.co.uk, tomcheesewright.com and futurism-tools.com. I control what content sits there, what email addresses are issued and any sub-domains. And yet these properties that we can own and control are increasingly superseded in importance by properties over which we have no control. Can this last?

Let’s be clear, Facebook will die, as ultimately will Twitter, and Snapchat and every other network, only to be replaced by something else. Facebook is demonstrating greater longevity than I expected and has maintained a surprising hold on the younger demographics, reversing an earlier trend that had seen its popularity decline in developed markets like the UK, US and Australia. Maybe it is going to have a Microsoft lifespan rather than a MySpace lifespan, but nonetheless it will one day be overtaken by a new network.

The chances are that what will replace it will be another private network. Or perhaps more likely, a collection of them: around a third of US Facebook users also use Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn according to the Pew Research Centre. Maybe it doesn’t die, it just loses primacy.

But in an ideal world, what would replace it would be distributed network of peers. A new email with addresses that we can own and control, but through which we can interact in the ways that have now become familiar through social networks — messaging, posts, rich media — and the ways that are fast becoming part of that experience — live videos and augmented reality.

A digital identity that is perhaps a little less transient.

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The ‘barbarity’ of the 9 to 5 is often self-imposed

I have been self-employed for 12 years now. For 12 years there has been little to bind me to ‘normal’ working patterns. During that period, I have granted myself varying degrees of freedom. But I’ve never been able to shake a sense of guilt when I’m not sat at a desk, or doing some other recognisable form of work, wherever it may be, between the ‘core’ hours of nine and five.

Being unavailable

It’s worst when people call, or request a call or meeting. When I have to tell them that no, I’m not available at that time. Even now I can’t bring myself to simply tell them that I’m not ‘working’. That I’m ‘only’ thinking. Or reading. Or exercising. Or napping. Or doing whatever it is that I want, and that my brain needs, in order to recharge.

That’s not a good enough excuse for my own mind, and it’s often not good enough for them. “Can you not just…?” Even when I do explain what else I’m doing, like spending time with the kids, the response is rarely simple acceptance. What I want to hear is, “No problem. Are you free tomorrow?” What I often hear is “Everyone else is free, could you make some time?”

Common problems

These are not original problems. I imagine they are familiar to anyone who has ever worked flexibly or part time. And probably to most women who, let’s be honest, continue to bear the brunt of family responsibilities, even while maintaining equally successful careers to their partners. My story is far from unique. But the fact that I, after 12 years, still feel the pressure to conform, just goes to show how deeply embedded these behaviours and expectations have become.

This will have to change.

Firstly, it has to change for me. I’m increasingly aware that as an applied futurist, talking and writing about the future isn’t enough. I should be ‘applying’ — doing what I can to live the future. How I do things, is as important as what I do. So I’ll be taking steps to increase my flexibility over the coming months, both to maximise my own quality of life but also to maximise my productivity.

Working differently

I recognise that I am enormously privileged to be able to take decisions like this. But I don’t think this change stops with me.

It was a quote from Douglas Coupland that inspired this post. In a recent talk he covered the issue of the future of work in some depth. His opinion? That we will look back on the ‘barbaric’ nine to five much as we look back on 19th century child labour now.

I don’t know that that is true. But I do believe that the commute-work-lunch-work-commute model is not a means to maximise human productivity, or happiness, particular where a growing proportion of the remaining work — uncaptured by machines — is creative.

As Coupland also points out, a more flexible, free-rolling schedule is also not without its risks. You have to be disciplined to avoid work taking over your life. But this is just the other side of the same problem: it’s equally hard to break the habits and expectations of the nine-to-five.

Maximising our happiness and productivity in tomorrow’s world is going to require reserves of confidence, and a level of control that few of us can — or do — exert right now.

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Change holds no fear for the secure

UBI may be the parachute we all need, when we have to jump with increasing frequency

If you were to pay every person in this country a stipend equivalent to the full state pension, from birth to death, it would cost around half a trillion pounds, or nearly two thirds of the national budget.

And it wouldn’t be enough to live on.

This, in the simplest possible terms, is the difficult maths of the Universal Basic Income, a subject gaining growing attention in the face of rising threats to jobs from automation.

Of course, you wouldn’t pay everyone the same amount at every stage in their life. It’s a nice idea in theory, but some people simply need more than others. The more you tweak the system though, the closer you get to today’s complex, unwieldy and expensively-administered welfare state.

Which somewhat defeats the point.

The costs also wouldn’t be so straightforward. For example, what proportion of that stipend would come straight back in taxes? Replace the tax-free allowance with the stipend and you have a bigger addressable income to tax. Extra spending would return, in part, through (modified) VAT.

There are also inflationary effects to consider, particularly on housing.

But it’s worth doing the maths (not ‘math’, American readers) on this idea. Because at some point we’re going to have to do something.

Silver bullet

Universal Basic Income (UBI) is (sadly) not a panacea. But it could be part of a wider solution. A solution that recognises and addresses our crumbling infrastructure — roads so pot-holed you need an off-road bike to navigate them. A solution that aims to address the desperate lack of homes. A solution that revalues some of our most critical roles in society: care, and teaching, for a start.

These things are complex, and often associated with the priorities of one or other political wing. So they merit less discussion (or more rancorous discussion) than a universal income, a simple idea that has been proposed at some point by people at every point on the political spectrum.

At some point though, we need to face all of these issues, and more.

Security in transition

Where UBI does have a major role to play is in providing security for those facing change. And that will be all of us, at a growing number of points throughout our lives.

Even if we doubled the minimum wage, invested massively in infrastructure, and created a whole set of incentives to attract new employment to the UK, the employed are likely to find themselves having to find new employment with greater and greater frequency. Beyond the most basic transferable skills, it’s likely we will have to retrain and return to education in some form on an increasingly regular basis.

On my next podcast, Dan Sodergren makes a compelling argument that employers should bare some of the responsibility for this retraining. As he points out, if you’re short of people with digital skills, surely it’s cheaper to retrain some existing staff than go through the costs — and risk — of new recruitment in what is currently a sellers’ market.

But often there won’t be an employer any more, if they have failed to keep pace with the changes. Or the skills upgrade required will be more than a few months of night school: maybe it’s a year or two of study.

In these cases, people will need more support.

Don’t fear the reaper

When I work with companies to help them understand the future, and make changes to help them survive and thrive in that future, I don’t get involved in the human aspects of change. My role is about vision, strategy and structure. Other people are massively more qualified than me to handle the difficult business of helping people to make change. But that doesn’t mean I’m not aware of how difficult many people find change.

Part of this difficulty I think, comes from the loss of security. UBI would at least underwrite people’s transition phases, ensuring that retraining was not done without an income and that people could be ambitious when changing direction. UBI wouldn’t remove people’s fear of the unknown or the loss of status inherent in moving from an established role to a new one. But it could at least ensure those fears aren’t amplified by financial insecurity.

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Robots: a shard of humanity is enough

One robot is worth six people. Or rather, for every industrial robot introduced per thousand workers, 5.6 roles are displaced, and wages are depressed by 0.25–0.5%. This is according to a research report released last week from the independent and non-partisan US National Bureau of Economic Research, conducted by two MIT economists using real-world historical data.

Compare this with research trumpeted by The Manufacturer magazine this week. Its article ‘Robots don’t steal jobs, they create them’ was based on a survey of 1000 manufacturing professionals conducted by a jobs site and ergonomics institution. Two thirds of the respondents said they had never seen a robot displacing a human worker.

Hmmm, the analysis of two independent, highly-skilled academics, based on real world data, versus the opinions and recollections of a thousand people inside the industry being studied.

I think I know which one I’ll place more faith in.

Inhumans

Industrial robots aren’t particularly humanoid, in any sense. Typically they are disembodied giant arms whirling dangerously around, wielding welders or paint sprayers. They have small fractions of a human’s intelligence or flexibility. But fractions are all that are needed to be able to relentlessly conduct a repeatable task with a level of accuracy that a human can’t match.

The software systems that are starting to displace workers in non-industrial settings are in many ways even less human. Some might be able to converse more capably, but they have no physical embodiment. Nonetheless, that small shard of humanity will be enough to replace five, ten, even a few hundred humans each only applying a small fraction of their real capabilities to complete the bulk of their daily tasks.

Robots don’t need to be much like humans to take human jobs.

Android obsession

Despite this, when we think of robots we mostly think of androids — human-shaped machines. The Science Museum in London is currently hosting an exhibition called ‘Robots: The 500 year quest to make machines human’, which plots our attempts from early automata to the latest domestic, industrial and research machines, like Pepper and Baxter.

Baxter is a user-programmable industrial robot with a degree of sensing intelligence

Some of these machines are downright disturbing. A remote-controlled baby used in films. A limbless video conferencing avatar. Robots with hand-sculpted skeletons designed to have human frailties. It all sits somewhere between the uncanny valley and an HR Geiger nightmare.

This ‘baby’ automaton is a film prop

None of these machines have much more than the shard of humanity possessed by the industrial robots. We are a long, long way from recreating the densely-packed wonder of our own evolved form: a hyper-computer in a self-healing, independently powered, ultra-adaptable shell. Achieving a truly humanoid robot is an interesting area for experimentation but it remains an aspiration more than a reality.

Robots that look like robots

While androids remain an aspiration, we should get used to robots that look like robots, adapted to their task rather than our form. They will still be anthropomorphised (surely a real word?) with cute ‘eyes’ and ‘faces’, but machines just don’t need to look like us to play a role in our world — positive or otherwise.

Personally, I was always more interested in R2-D2 than C3PO. The robots of my dreams in childhood were distinctly mechanical, not the smooth humanoids of Channel 4’s Humans. Maybe that’s now retro-futurism. But to me the future will always be flashing lights and squeaking robots.

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In a mixed reality, matter matters

Last week, the In The City club brought a panel of speakers, to discuss the future of augmented reality. Expertly chaired by my fellow BBC commentator, Dan Sodergren, Google’s Jennifer Alexander, the BBC’s Maria Stukoff, and I, ranged from today’s embryonic experience to predictions of tomorrow’s reality. We were followed by a presentation from Microsoft’s always-excellent James Akrigg, on Hololens.

A few pieces of the discussion stand out in my mind.

Raising Glass

Firstly, a comment I made — not for the first time — really seemed to get a lot of attention on Twitter. I spoke in defence of Google Glass, which seems to have become a bit of a joke amongst the tech community.

It’s a point I’ve made before, but I don’t think Google Glass was a failed product. Rather, it was a successful experiment — one that an organisation like Alphabet can easily afford, and for which its leaders should be applauded. Glass taught us a lot about the state of the art of the technology, and all its weaknesses. But more importantly it showed us where we were at as a society in terms of accepting a very visible form of human augmentation, and all of its social consequences. Glass forced us to consider what it means to have clearly distinct classes of digital haves, and have-nots. What it means to live in an always-on society where everyone is always on camera.

Lenses and implants

Secondly, Maria raised the question of future access media: contact lenses and even implants. I’ve spoken in the past about my scepticism on implanted computers, and this hasn’t changed following Elon Musk’s investment in creating a neural lace. It’s not that I don’t think this will be a possible technology. I absolutely believe it will be possible, and that when it comes it will likely provide a practical advantage in terms of communication bandwidth to those who adopt it. But this feels like a distant technology to me, and one that has huge technical, social, and regulatory barriers to overcome. Our understanding of the brains’ operation remains hazy. Once a device is implanted it needs to be something you don’t need to change or upgrade — without major advances in surgery this will be a major procedure.

For the next thirty years, implanted technology will be a personal choice, like getting a tattoo, rather than a ubiquitous technology like the smartphone.

The contact lens, by comparison, may be much closer than you think. A tiny, high-bandwidth wireless receiver, that harvests power from radio waves and translates the signal into a pixel overlay on your eye, seems very possible. What I don’t know is enough about lenses and how still they stay against the eye: if it slides around a bit, that is going to be very disorienting.

Mostly mixed reality

The statement I made that didn’t get the attention I expected, was that most of the people in the room — overwhelmingly employed in technology businesses — would spend most of their working day in mixed reality within a decade.

Mixed reality is increasingly the accepted term for ‘posh’ AR: high-precision overlays of digital information over the physical world. That information could be virtual objects, people, spaces or just about anything, realistically (or otherwise) rendered in 3D and so tightly locked to your physical reality that it can appear to interact with it. Virtual objects can be placed on real tables. Virtual billboards pasted on real walls.

Right now, the mixed reality experience is limited. I’m fond of reminding James Akrigg that the field of view in Microsoft’s Hololens is relatively shallow. But this is a backhanded compliment: Microsoft has solved the difficult issues of locating objects in space. Its constraints are the processing power and battery life that can be crammed into a truly wearable device without it being tethered — as most high-end VR headsets are today. As processing and battery capability improves, Microsoft can expand the field of view without having to fundamentally upgrade the core technology — even though I understand it could still bear a few improvements.

As Hololens and similar technologies are further condensed, the prospect of a world where most of our lives are spent in a blended reality of atoms and holograms is increasingly realistic, and I would argue, probable. The advantage conferred by high-bandwidth, three-dimensional interactions with digital systems will be hard to ignore.

Matter matters

This undoubtedly presents a risk though. Some people’s grip on reality is already weak. Imagine the nightmares a child might have after straying into an inappropriate AR experience. You can’t hide from the Cybermen behind the sofa, as I remember doing, when they can walk around it to find you.

Mental illness at all stages in life is increasingly recognised as the un-tackled challenge. Messing with our reality is undoubtedly going to place increasing strain on those already struggling.

These aren’t arguments against progressing with augmented, or mixed, reality. For a start, I think that would be pointless: it’s a small next-step on a long programme of development narrowing the gap between us and our machines. It would also be unnecessarily limiting: this will enable the further augmentation of human capability, something we have strived for since we first picked up a rock and used it as a tool. But they arguments that this is a step we should take consciously, and as with so many technology-driven steps, it does not feel like the debate is taking place beyond small panels like ours.

We need more highly public experiments, like Google Glass, to drive this debate into the public consciousness.

Tom Cheesewright