There’s been a lot of talk from Conservative politicians in the UK about the ‘global race‘. This race, we’re led to believe, involves all the countries of the world. The winners are those countries that can compete the best, presumably by selling more things cheaper than anyone else can, by dint of working harder and being smarter.
Races, and competitions in general, are perfectly reasonable for situations where the thing you want to find out (or to optimise) is easily and directly measured; so, for example, if you want to find out who the fastest runner in the world is, then you hold a series of races where you measure everyone’s speed. No problem, everyone’s happy.
Now, while such races are entertaining to watch and may tell you something about the human spirit, etc, they are not of direct relevance to most people’s lives because most people are not that interested in becoming the fastest runner in the world. They may want to run, because it’s fun to do so or because they want to lose weight, and in the process they may find it fun to try and run faster, but in all the 5k and 10k and half-marathons I’ve run in, there’s only one winner and about 5000 losers. None of those losers consider themselves losers because they aren’t really competing against anyone except for, perhaps, themselves.
That’s where the problem with the global race comes in. The metaphor is chosen because we all know what races are, and we all know that sacrifices must be made in order to win them. We all know about Olympic athletes who swim for eight hours a day or who run on Christmas and New Year’s Day just to get a bit more training in than their rivals. Therefore, if we’re in a global race, everyone in the country must pull together and make sacrifices in order to win.
But what does it mean to win the global race? What, exactly, are we measuring?
GDP per capita? According to the International Monetary Fund, the top spot is held by Qatar, with $100,889; the UK lies at 24th place with $36,569. It’s safe to say we won’t be winning that particular race any time soon. More importantly, I don’t think anyone in the UK is particularly jealous of Qatari citizens other than the fact that they probably own some really nice cars and electronics.
Productivity rates? Out of the OECD countries, Luxembourg and Norway come out top when measured by GDP per hour worked; as of 2007, the UK lay in 11th place. Now, I like Norway a lot, but I suspect the Tories don’t, otherwise they’d be renationalising the energy sector, employing more government workers, expanding the welfare state, and giving parents 46 weeks of paid leave.
Neither measurement is satisfactory. Taiwan, Sweden, Ireland, Hong Kong, and the US all outperform the UK. Does that mean they’re winning in the global race, and so we should mimic whatever they do? Singapore is well up there, perhaps the UK should also become a one-party country. Or maybe, like Germany (who are also beating us), we should require large companies to have workers councils and also adopt proportional representation.
We don’t know who the winners and losers of the global race are because we don’t know what the race is for — and even if we did know, we couldn’t simply just copy what the winners do, because we aren’t about to magically discover more oil in the North Sea, or because we aren’t prepared to adopt the policies of Taiwan or Singapore, or because we know that what works for smaller countries won’t work for us.
As for GDP and productivity figures (which are easily manipulated and hard to compare between countries), they’re only useful as a means towards an end, which may, depending on your politics, include healthier and happier citizens, or citizens who have a great deal of autonomy, or citizens who live fulfilling lives. Those ends can be achieved in many different ways and it’s not always clear that money will help, otherwise Qatar would have the happiest, healthiest, smartest, and most fulfilled citizens in the world. The vagueness of the global race is deliberate, or at least, extremely advantageous, because it allows the Tories to justify more or less any policy they want.
But what’s most disappointing to me is not the vagueness. It’s the lack of vision. We know we don’t want to be poor. But what do we win, and what do we sacrifice, by being rich?
This week, Nest announced a ‘beautiful’ new smoke alarm that’s more advanced, more connected, more user-friendly, and more expensive than anything else on the market. Naturally, the press jumped on it like a Republican on a closed national monument.
It does a lot — it monitors both smoke and carbon monoxide, it’s wirelessly networked and internet connected so you can make sure your house isn’t burning down while you’re on holiday, and it communicates with Nest’s thermostat product.
But it doesn’t have everything. It doesn’t, for example, have a camera. Adding a camera would turn the alarm into a great home security product, one that would let you peek into every room in your house. Sounds great, right? Up until last week, I’d have agreed, but now the very suggestion brings me out in hives. The reason is because I’ve read Dave Eggers latest novel, The Circle.
The Circle is a near-future company that melds Facebook, Twitter, Google (and, to an extent, Apple). Its founders have a zealous conviction in the power of openness, transparency, and most importantly, the sharing of everything that can possibly be shared. As Mae Holland, a new customer support team member, works her way up the ranks at The Circle, we see the company driving forth its message with radically disruptive cheap technology that practically enforces transparency and sharing throughout the world. Things get very dramatic.
All of the characters in the story are basically stand-ins for Silicon Valley types (the VC, the hacker, the evangelist, the skeptic, the oldies, etc.) and the plot is rather predictable – but by god, what a plot it is! Eggers really takes Mark Zuckerberg’s belief that the world would be better if no-one felt they had to keep secrets and runs with it as far as he possibly can, which makes for a very dark world. By the end, I was appalled, and the thought of putting more cameras in my flat seemed suicidal.
Now, I expect that a lot of technically-minded people will object to pretty much every single aspect of novel; I know I did when I began reading it. Many of those objections are legitimate, but like 1984, the question is not whether the technology is correct but whether the philosophy of the world it depicts is one that we believe in — because if it is, then maybe we will end up in something like that world.
Eggers makes a strong case for why we’re heading in the direction of his dystopia. He understands our fear of crime and child abuse; he understands the seductive promise that radical transparency and surveillance could solve those problems and many others besides, like corruption and inefficiency and disaster relief. He extrapolates from our seemingly-compulsive use of social media and casual games, and sees a future where we’ll gradually, willingly, happily hand over our agency and individuality to everyone else to the owners of the communications platform that underpins everything.
It’s an awful future. And it’s one that I don’t believe will happen, and here’s why: Keep reading →
How we do avoid creating a superhuman artificial intelligence (AI) that does not end up harming humanity? This is a question of great consequence to AI researchers and thinkers who believe that future AIs will have capabilities and will act in a way completely different and unfathomable to humans, just as our actions may seem unfathomable to apes. Such beings could pose an existential threat to humanity even if they weren’t of the ‘killer robots’ variety; instead, they may be completely indifferent to humans but may decide that it’s just more efficient or interesting to disassemble the Earth in order to create a wormhole (or whatever). It’s safe to say that this kind of indifference most certainly counts as ‘unfriendly.’
My extremely cursory reading suggests that few people have any good ideas about how to ensure that any superhuman AI will end up being friendly — that is, generate positive effects for humanity — rather than unfriendly. Part of the problem is that while we may intuitively think that we should raise them like good parents by giving them solid moral instruction, provide good examples, and so on, this assumes that any AI we create will be sufficiently like a human for that to work.
Another problem is what counts as a positive effect for humanity. Science fiction is littered with examples of naive do-gooder AIs that try to maximise some variable or another, like human lifespan or happiness or numbers, with the end result being some horrific dystopia of miserable immortals or blissed-out drug addicts. These stories, while presenting entertaining evil genies-in-a-lamp updated for modern audiences, are perhaps not giving AIs enough credit. Still, the question remains: what would be a good effect? Most people can barely agree on a political framework, let alone what constitutes the good life; and most humans don’t have the capacity for ultra long-term thinking. Maybe a utilitarian-leaning AI might decide that in the long term, it’d be worth throwing an asteroid at the Earth to kill a billion people today in order to unite the planet and improve matters a couple of centuries hence.
Now, even this kind of cold-blooded AI is preferable to our indifferent wormhole-generating one, but would we prefer a different kind of friendly AI? Amid the fervour for creating AIs as soon as possible lest we waste even a second of AI-enhanced goodness, it seems odd not to reflect on what, exactly, we want from them as individuals and as a species. Perhaps the reason why this feels like an difficult issue is because it poses uncomfortable questions — not about the future, but about how we govern ourselves today, and how we live our lives today.
A major reason why Apple has sold so many iPhones in the US is due to the unusual way phones are subsidised by carriers over there. Very few people buy an iPhone for the full, off-contract $649+ price — instead, they get it for ‘only’ $99 or $199, with the rest of the phone’s cost being built into the hefty monthly contract that they’re bound into for the next couple of years. As far as the US is concerned, there’s not a huge amount to be gained by making a ‘cheap’ iPhone since you can’t get that much cheaper than a $99 subsidised cost.
Yes, things are very different in the rest of the world where pay-as-you-go plans are much more popular and there’s more flexibility in subsidised plans. But there’s no doubt that carrier subsidies have been — and continue to be — a fantastic way for Apple to get people to amortise the cost of a very expensive piece of technology over 24 months. Most people never really used to do that for laptops or computers (unless you count the indirect method of credit cards) but they’ve managed it with phones.
And now there’s the putative ‘iWatch’, the wearable device that many smart people believe Apple is frantically developing right now. This watch will, of course, look amazing — and given Apple’s hires from Nike and from sensor manufacturers, it’s clear the iWatch will have a heavy healthcare focus.
In other words, the iWatch will make you healthier — and who doesn’t want to be healthier? No-one. But who’s willing to pay $200 or $300 for it? I think it’s a hard sell, no matter how many accelerometers and heartrate and blood pressure and pulseox sensors it contains. We aren’t as rational as economists think we are — even if buying an iWatch would make us more than $300 ‘healthier’ (through reduced future healthcare expenditures), we wouldn’t necessarily be convinced. The iPhone is fun and eliminates boredom; the iWatch is much less fun and also kind of a downer, since it might show how lazy you’ve been.
But what if health insurers subsidised the iWatch? They already subsidise lots of other crappy pedometers and gym memberships, which must cost them dozens if not hundreds of dollars per year per member. When I belonged to Pruhealth in the UK, I practically got a premium gym membership for free.
Here’s Apple’s pitch: if you give an iWatch to all of your customers, you can:
a) Incentivise them to walk more/eat less/sit down less (because, yeah, they consent to be monitored) in return for reducing their premiums
b) Provide a shiny enticement for people to join your plan, which is more important than it used to be due to the new healthcare exchanges
What used to be a $300 device now only costs $50 or $100 to the end-user after subsidies (assuming the user stays with the insurer for two years); not too much at all. Insurers get an easy way in to the wonderful world of ‘big data’, customers get a shiny new thing, and Apple gets a steady income stream with a clockwork two-year upgrade cycle with sales driven by insurers that already have hundreds of millions of monthly-paying members.
Two and a half years ago, I began a Kickstarter project for A History of the Future in 100 Objects, a book that would map out the 21st century in a hundred speculative objects. I wanted to cover more than just technology; I wanted to look at the future of religion, politics, sport, food, health, architecture, transport, work, and, well, everything.
That’s quite a tall order, and of course it ended up being far harder than I anticipated; what I thought might take a year took over twice as long. Let’s just say I learned a lot (if you’re interested in hearing more about it, check out my latest Kickstarter update) about how writing a book at the same time as running a company means that you don’t get evenings or weekends any more.
Not that I’d take back the experience. I’m proud of the book. It’s not perfect by any means, but I think that among the hundred chapters that make up the book, from factual articles to newspaper reports to interviews to short stories, there are some new ideas and new expressions of old ideas that many people have never seen before. And that’s all I could ask for.
You can see a preview of A History of the Future right now on the official website, and in fact the eBook is for sale on Amazon and via Gumroad now as well. However, the ‘proper’ launch of the book will be later this month after I talk about it on Radio 4 and at the Futurefest conference, and after it’s available as a physical book — hence why I’m not making too much noise about it.
The energy I poured into the book meant that I didn’t have time to write here. I’m looking forward to coming back, though.
Peter Molyneux is making a game called Curiosity: What’s Inside The Cube, in which players will be chipping away at a giant cube together in order to found out what’s inside; something “life-changing”, supposedly. Of course, you’ll be able to buy more expensive chisels and such to speed up how fast you can chip away, meaning that Molyneux may stand to make some decent cash from the game. Infamously, one of the chisels will cost $50,000.
I think it’s pretty obvious that the cube will contain some kind of charitable donation in the winner’s name, representing most or all of the profits made from the game. Or perhaps the winning player can make a choice to either take 50% of the cash for themselves, or give away 100% of the cash to charity; Molyneux loves his ridiculously binary moral choices, after all. Some kind of good vs. evil choice writ large, using real money.
a) I doubt his company really needs or cares about the profits they could make from this self-described ‘experiment’
b) It’d be awesome publicity to give away a lot of cash to charity
c) It’d really annoy all of his detractors
So I’m calling it: it’ll be a good vs. evil charity/greed choice. The man is a master manipulator.
What’s a retro game today? 8 bit pixellated graphics, chiptunes, simple platformer game mechanics, and charmingly traditional scoring and levelling? If you grew up in the 70s and 80s, that makes plenty of sense. I didn’t – I was born in 1982, so the most memorable games I played usually had at least EGA or VGA graphics with Soundblaster audio.
For an 18 year old growing up in a rich country, though, they’ve had a very different experience.
They were born in 1994; next year, the Playstation would be available worldwide. GoldenEye 007 was on sale on the Nintendo 64 when they were 3 years old, along with Final Fantasy 7 on the Playstation. By the time they were 4, Gran Turismo had sold 10 million copies. The following year, the Dreamcast had launched worldwide with Space Channel 5, Sonic Adventure, and Virtua Fighter 3.
At 6 years old, the Playstation 2 was released in 2000. It’s likely that this, or the cheaper PSOne, was probably their first console. They’ve always had 3D graphics. Grand Theft Auto 3 came out when they were 7 and GTA: San Andreas was out after their tenth birthday. They probably played it, even if they weren’t supposed to. Halo 2 came out in the same year.
The XBox 360 was out when they were 11 years old, along with World of Warcraft. They may not have an iPhone, but the iPod Touch came out in 2007, when they were 13. There’s a good chance they’ve owned one – but maybe they’re still hanging on to the Nintendo DS, which was released a couple of years earlier.
I’m sure they enjoy retro games – 18 year olds play Flash games like everyone else. But that’s not retro for them. Retro is Grand Theft Auto 3, it’s Halo 2, it’s Super Mario Sunshine. Not 8 bit graphics.
After reading Christopher Priest’s The Islanders, I was immediately compelled to figure out exactly what was going on in the story (similar to what I tried with Iain Banks’ Transition). Of course, The Islanders is even more deliberately ambiguous and dreamlike than Transition, and so I’m acutely aware that trying to unknot the plot is perhaps not the most sensible exercise; especially when I haven’t yet read Priest’s other stories set in the same world, i.e. The Dream Archipelago and The Affirmation.
That said, I really enjoy doing it, so: please look away, SPOILERS AHEAD!
Click to enlarge
In no particular order, here are some of the questions I had, with accompanying speculations:
So, what exactly happened with Commis?
The most straightforward answer is that Kerith Sington, after having been beaten up by Commis (in non-mime garb), really did drop the pane of glass on him; and that this was made possible by Chas Kammeston loosening its bindings and leaving the door open (not to mention putting it up there in the first place, although that wasn’t entirely his fault). Keep reading →
This month’s issue of Harper’s Bazaar magazine has an augmented reality feature in which you use a smartphone to ‘bring the cover to life’. It’s far from the first magazine to do it, and it’s hard to miss adverts on the tube or at bus stops that have some variation of ’scan this advert to see something cool’. I’ve never actually seen anyone do this, but in the spirit of inquiry I decided to test exactly how long it would take to make this happen.
Here are the steps required for Harper’s Bazaar:
Unlock my iPhone 4
Go to Home Screen
Open the App Store
Switch to the Search tab
Type in ‘Zappar’
Select ‘Zappar’ from the list of apps
Tap to download (3.1MB)
Type in my password
Wait for the download to complete
Skip the tutorial
Select ‘Harper’s Bazaar’ from the list of ‘zaps’
Tap to download this specific ‘zap’ (4.4MB)
Wait for the download to complete
Tap ‘Zap’ to start the AR feature
Watch the thing
That’s a lot of steps. Going at full speed and using a wifi connection, plus starting from step 2, it took me 90 seconds from start to finish. If I wasn’t in such a hurry I would imagine it’d take about 2 minutes, and if you actually bothered to swipe through the Zappar tutorial you’re looking at 3 minutes.
But at least with a magazine there’s a good chance you’ll be at home when you’re reading it and on a fast wifi connection; plus you might be more inclined to try it since you bought the thing – why anything imagines that someone would do this while walking around outside is beyond me.
It would be OK if what you got was the most awesome augmented reality experience ever, but with Harper’s Bazaar, it was just a video. To be precise, I watched a video superimposed onto a magazine cover that I’m looking at through the camera of my iPhone. My iPhone screen isn’t that huge, and when the video only covers part of the magazine, it’s really quite tiny. If it was a great video, then you’d probably want to watch it on a computer or tablet, or at the very least, full screen on the iPhone; but here it’s just a gimmick, and a bad one at that since it pales in comparison to superior gimmicks that show 3D objects or similar.
So basically my point here is that it’s a big waste of money. What’s new? Precisely nothing at all – we’re just seeing augmented reality go through the classic hype curve in which a new technology makes possible something that we’ve always wanted to have (i.e. Terminator-vision) but in a form that is manifestly unsuited to most applications. Consider:
There is no standard platform and it’s not built-in to phones. If you want to view any AR, you must download a special app, and people underestimate the public’s tolerances for downloading any old thing.
It’s not hands free, and usually you’re extending your hands right out in front of you. It severely limits interaction possibilities, plus it’s not comfortable to hold that position for more than a few minutes.
Most applications are desperately unimaginative, often involving advertising or some kind of navigation system that’s better executed in standard top-down maps.
It’s too small. How much useful information can you overlay onto a small screen that only displays a tiny slice of the world? I have no doubt that pictures like this will make kids of the future crack up with laughter and be featured in the Paleofuture blog of 2031:
None of these challenges are insurmountable, but it’s foolish at best and disingenuous at worst to suggest that smartphone-based AR is anything other than experimental and highly unlikely to provide any conventional return. So, hey, if you’ve got money to burn, by all means play around with AR, although it wouldn’t hurt to try something a bit more interesting; but if you don’t (as is the case for most of the publishing industry), save your cash. No-one wants AR yet because there has been no clear demonstration of its strengths above and beyond what we already have.
Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it.
When I first heard about Occupy Wall Street, I had two conflicting reactions: I was happy that the incredible rise in inequality and the pernicious influence of corporations and vested interests on democracy was finally getting the attention it deserved – but I found the sheer lack of organisation painful to see. In particular, the ‘total consensus’ decision-making process in some areas seemed like it was a definite roadblock to scaling things up. Only with scale, I thought, could the Occupy movement make a real impact.
We’ve treated ’scale’ like an unalloyed good for so long that it seems peculiar to question it. There are plenty of reasons for wanting to scale businesses and services up to make more things for more people in more areas; perhaps the strongest is that things usually get cheaper and quicker to provide.
The problem is that scale has a cost, and that’s being unable to respond to the wants and needs of unique individuals. Theoretically, that’s not a problem in a free market, but of course, we don’t have a free market, and we certainly don’t have a free market when it comes to politics and media.
Just look at how the Occupy movement have been covered – or not, as the case may be. National news organisations naturally want to cover the biggest movements that they think will be of the most interest to the most people, and crucially, can be explained in the least time possible; no wonder they were so adamant on getting a single demand or list of issues from Occupy Wall Street and the rest of the movement – it’d make their lives easier.
And that process of simplification has a feedback effect on politics, focusing attention on just a small number of actors who appear to have ’scale’ and an interesting story. Who cares about some little protest in some town when you can profile Michelle Bachmann, potential Republican presidential nominee (or indeed, Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty, Herman Cain, etc.)? But there is one good reason behind focusing on them – it’s the ultimate instance of scale, one person representing over 300 million people.
I find that disturbing. I’ve made no secret of my belief that bad gatekeepers (like commissioners and editors) can waste money, favour their friends, and harm creativity. Some think that the solution to this is to have better gatekeepers. I think the solution is to have fewer gatekeepers – as few as we can manage with.
The system of politics in the US and UK has a similar problem, where you have a single person wielding a massive amount of power. When we see a bad leader in power, we think the solution is to elect a better leader. For some reason, we don’t think of having fewer leaders.
So, on second thoughts, I can see understand the strengths of the Occupy movement. By being a leaderless organisation, small groups that are loosely connected, it neatly eliminates the problem of abusive or ineffective leaders and devolves power to a much more local level – a level that can be more reflective and responsive to the people directly involved.
OccupyX is not perfect by any means but it demonstrates an alternative to the lure of scale. Just by itself, that’s a remarkable achievement.
What are the 100 objects that future historians will pick to define our 21st century? A javelin thrown by an 'enhanced' Paralympian, far further than any normal human? Virtual reality interrogation equipment used by police forces? The world's most expensive glass of water, mined from the moons of Mars? Or desire modification drugs that fuel a brand new religion?
A History of the Future in 100 Objects describes a hundred slices of the future of everything, spanning politics, technology, art, religion, and entertainment. Some of the objects are described by future historians; others through found materials, short stories, or dialogues. All come from a very real future.