Category Archives: education

The future of questions

The late Douglas Adams had many great ideas. One of the best was the computer Deep Thought, built to answer The question of ‘life, the universe and everything’ that took 6 million years to come up with the answer 42. It then had to design a far bigger machine to determine what the question actually was.

Finding the right question is often much harder than answering it. Much of observational comedy is based on asking the simplest questions that we just happen never to have thought of asking before.

A good industrial illustration is in network design. A long time ago I used to design computer communication protocols, actually a pretty easy job for junior engineers. While doing one design, I discovered a flaw in a switch manufacturer’s design that would allow data networks to be pushed into a gross overload situation and crashed repeatedly by a single phone call. I simply asked a question that hadn’t been asked before. My question was “can computer networks be made to resonate dangerously?” That’s the sort of question bridge designers have asked every time they’ve built a bridge since roman times, with the notable exception of the designers of London’s Millennium Bridge, who had to redesign their’s. All I did was apply a common question from one engineering discipline to another. I did that because I was trained as a systems engineer, not as a specialist. It only took a few seconds to answer in my head and a few hours to prove it via simulation, so it was a pretty simple question to answer (yes they can), but it had taken many years before anyone bothered to ask it.

More importantly, that question couldn’t have been asked much before the 20th century, because the basic knowledge or concept of a computer network wasn’t there yet. It isn’t easy to think of a question that doesn’t derive from existent culture (which includes the full extent of fiction of course). As new ideas are generated by asking and answering questions, so the culture gradually extends, and new questions become possible. But we don’t ask them all, only a few. Even with the culture and knowledge we already have at any point, it is possible to ask far more questions, and some of them will lead to very interesting answers and a few of those could change the world.

Last night I had a dream where I was after-dinner speaking to some wealthy entrepreneurs (that sort of thing is my day job). One of them challenged me that ideas were hard to come by and as proof of his point asked me why the wheel had never been reinvented (actually it is often reinvented, just like the bicycle – all decent engineers have reinvented the bicycle to some degree at some point, and if you haven’t yet, you probably will. You aren’t allowed to die until you have). Anyway, I invented the plasma caterpillar track there and then as my answer to show that ideas are ten a penny and that being an entrepreneur is about having the energy and determination to back them, not the idea itself. That’s why I stick with ideas, much less work. Dreams often violate causality, at least mine do, and one department of my brain obviously contrived that situation to air an idea from the R&D department, but in the dream it was still the question that caused the invention. Plasma caterpillar tracks are a dream-class invention. Once daylight appears, you can see that they need work, but in this case, I also can see real potential, so I might do that work, or you can beat me to it. If you do and you get rich, buy me a beer. Sorry, I’m rambling.

How do you ask the right question? How do you even know what area to ask the right question in? How do you discover what questions are possible to ask? Question space may be infinite, but we only have a map of a small area with only a few paths and features on it. Some tools are already known to work well and thousands of training staff use them every day in creativity courses.

One solution is to try to peel back and ask what it is you are really trying to solve. Maybe the question isn’t ‘what logo should we use?’ but ‘what image do we want to present?’, or is it ‘how can we appeal to those customers?’ or ‘how do we improve our sales?’ or ‘how do we get more profit?’ or ‘how can we best serve shareholders?’. Each layer generates different kinds of answers.

Another mechanism I use personally is to matrix solutions and industries, applying questions or solutions from one industry to another, or notionally combining random industries. A typical example: Take TV displays and ask why can’t makeup also change 50 times a second? If the answer isn’t obvious, look at how nature does displays, can some of those techniques be dragged into makeup? Yes, they can, and you could make smart makeup using similar micro-structures to those that butterflies and beetles use and use the self-organisation developing in materials science to arrange the particles automatically.

Dragging solutions and questions from one area to another often generates lots of ideas. Just list every industry sector you can think of (and nature), and all the techs or techniques or procedures they use and cross reference every box against every other. By the time you’ve filled in every box, it will be long overdue to start again because they’ll all have moved on.

But however effective they are, these mechanistic techniques only fill in some of the question space and some can be addressed at least partly by AI. There is still a vast area unexplored, even with existing knowledge. Following paths is fine, but you need to explore off-road too. Group-think and cultural immersion stand in the way of true creativity. You can’t avoid your mind being directed in particular directions that have been ingrained since birth, and some genetic.

That leads some people to the conclusion that you need young fresh minds rather than older ones, but it isn’t just age that determines creativity, it is susceptibility to authority too, essentially thinking how you’re told to think. Authority isn’t just parents and teachers, or government, but colleagues and friends, mainly your peer group. People often don’t see peers as authority but needing their approval is as much a force as any. I am frequently amused spotting young people on the tube that clearly think they are true individuals with no respect for authority. They stick out a mile because they wear the uniform that all the young people who are individuals and don’t respect authority wear. It’s almost compulsory. They are so locked in by the authority and cultural language of those they want to impress by being different that they all end up being the same. Many ‘creatives’ suffer the same problem, you can often spot them from a distance too, and it’s a fairly safe bet that their actual creativity is very bounded. The fact is that some people are mentally old before they leave school and some die of old age yet still young in mind and heart.

How do you solve that? Well, apart from being young, one aspect of being guided down channels via susceptibility to authority is understanding the rules. If you are too new in a field to know how it works, who everyone is, how the tools work or even most of the basic fundamental knowledge of the field, then you are in an excellent position to ask the right questions. Some of my best ideas have been when I have just started in a new area. I do work in every sector now so my mind is spread very thinly, and it’s always easy to generate new ideas when you aren’t prejudiced by in-depth knowledge. If I don’t know that something can’t work, that you tried it ages ago and it didn’t, so you put it away and forgot about it, then I might think of it, and the technology might well have moved on since then and it might work now, or in 10 years time when I know the tech will catch up. I forget stuff very quickly too and although that can be a real nuisance it also minimizes prejudices so can aid this ‘creativity via naivety’.

So you could make sure that staff get involved in other people’s projects regularly, often with those in different parts of the company. Make sure they go on occasional workshops with others to ensure cross-fertilization. Make sure you have coffee areas and coffee times that make people mix and chat. The coffee break isn’t time wasted. It won’t generate new products or ideas every day but it will sometimes.

Cultivating a questioning culture is good too. Just asking obvious questions as often as you can is good. Why is that there? How does it work? What if we changed it? What if the factory burned down tomorrow, how would we rebuild it? Why the hell am I filling in this form?

Yet another one is to give people ‘permission’ to think outside the box. Many people have to follow procedures in their jobs for very good reasons, so they don’t always naturally challenge the status quo, and many even pursue careers that tend to be structured and ordered. There is nothing wrong with that, each to their own, but sometimes people in any area might need to generate some new ideas. A technique I use is to present some really far future and especially seemingly wacky ones to them before making them do their workshop activity. Having listened to some moron talking probable crap and getting away with it gives them permission to generate some wacky ideas too, and some invariably turn out to be good ones.

These techniques can improve everyday creativity but they still can’t generate enough truly out of the box questions to fill in the map.

I think what we need is the random question generator. There are a few random question generators out there now. Some ask mathematical questions to give kids practice before exams. Some just ask random pre-written questions from a database. They aren’t the sort we need though. We won’t be catapulted into a new era of enlightenment by being asked the answer to 73+68 or ones that were already on a list. Maybe I should have explored more pages on google, but most seemed to bark up the wrong tree. The better approach might be to copy random management jargon generators. Tech jargon ones exist too. Some are excellent fun. They are the sort we need. They combine various words from long categorized lists in grammatically plausible sequences to come out with plausible sounding terms. I am pretty sure that’s how they write MBA courses.

We can extend that approach to use a full vocabulary. If a question generator asks random questions using standard grammatical rules and a basic dictionary attack, (a first stage filtration process) most of the questions filtering through would still not make sense (e.g, why are all moons square?). But now we have AI engines that can parse sentences and filter out nonsensical ones or ones that simply contradict known facts and the web is getting a lot better at being machine-comprehensible. Careful though, some of those facts might not be any more.

After this AI filtration stage, we’d have a lot of questions that do make sense. A next stage filtration could discover which ones have already been asked and which of those have also been answered, and which of those answers have been accepted as valid. These stages will reveal some questions still awaiting proper responses, or where responses are dubious or debatable. Some will be about trivia, but some will be in areas that might seem to be commercially or socially valuable.

Some of the potentially valuable ones would be suited to machines to answer too. So they could start using spare cycles on machines to increase knowledge that way. Companies already do this internally with their big data programs for their own purposes, but it could work just as well as a global background task for humanity as a whole, with the whole of the net as one of its data sources. Machines could process data and identify potential new markets or products or identify social needs, and even suggest how they could be addressed and which companies might be able to do them. This could increase employment and GDP and solve some social issues that people weren’t even aware of.

Many would not be suited to AI and humans could search them for inspiration. Maybe we could employ people in developing countries as part of aid programs. That provides income and utilizes the lack of prejudice that comes with unfamiliarity with our own culture. Another approach is to make the growing question database online and people would make apps that deliver randomly selected questions to you to inspire you when you’re bored. There would be enough questions to make sure you are usually the first to have ever seen it. When you do, you could rate it as meaningless, don’t care, interesting, or wow that’s a really good question, maybe some other boxes. Obviously you could also produce answers and link to them too. Lower markings would decrease their reappearance probability, whereas really interesting ones would be seen by lots of people and some would be motivated to great answers.

Would it work? How could this be improved? What techniques might lead us to the right questions? Well, I just asked those ones and this blog is my first attempt at an answer. Feel free to add yours.

 

 

The future of MBAs

I’ve reached M in my ‘the future of’ series. So, MBAs.

We have all had to sit through talks where the speaker thinks that using lots of points that start with the same letter is somehow impressive. During one such talk, I got bored and produced this one letter fully comprehensive MBA. Enjoy:

Corporate Cycle

Teacher remuneration – do they really have cause to moan?

Some teachers are brilliant, dedicated people who perform miracles with difficult kids. Some.

Today a lot of teachers went on strike over pay and pensions (and some other things). Well, it is understandable that nobody wants to see any drop in their overall remuneration, but let’s take a quick look at their financial situation. I think they are actually doing pretty well. Sure they work hard and it’s stressful, but we all do, and what job isn’t?

I did a quick search for a reference for their pay and pensions.

http://www.nasuwt.org.uk/consum/groups/public/@salariespensionsconditions/documents/nas_download/nasuwt_011343.pdf

lists the salary scales for those teachers covered by the biggest union. The bottom end is an unimpressive £21.5k per year, but the bottom end on almost every career is pretty low so that doesn’t tell us much. The top is pretty high, but I actually want to focus on their pensions because they don’t seem to understand how fantastic a deal they get. A lot of teachers don’t stay in teaching very long because they find it too stressful or hard work, but I don’t have any stats on where they go next. If they stay in the public sector, then presumably they can transfer their pensions to another public sector scheme. Pensions are extraordinarily generous in the public sector, and the lower you are in the career path, the higher the proportion of your salary they make up since they are based on final salary. So…  for those teachers who stay in teaching or move elsewhere in the public sector, what is the full package worth, even then? Let’s see.

Let’s filter first. Rubbish teachers don’t deserve to be paid well, and they cause a lifetime of big problems for their unfortunate pupils, so I don’t care if they are badly paid. It is better if they leave and find another job where they can do less damage.

Good teachers can expect to climb high in the career structure. A few of the good teachers will become heads or department heads. For those that are quite good but don’t make it that far, they can expect to reach about £47k. A head teacher can reach £105k but not many teachers reach that level of course. Currently, each year that a teacher works, they earn 1/60th of final salary, regardless of their salary at the moment. From 2015 that will change to career average, a very different figure. Average life expectancy at age 24 right now is about 83, and retirement age for a young teacher will be 67, so they’ll get a pension for an average of 16 years, but that assumes no further progress is made on longevity. Actually, they will almost certainly live a lot longer than that, and get far more total pension. A starter teacher on the lowest salary point possible who will later progress to the top of their profession earns a miserly £21.5k salary, but gets a whole year’s worth of contribution to their pension. A pension that will possibly be 43/60ths of £105k, i.e. £75k, for 16 years, a total of £1.2M. Averaged over their working life, (since they get one year contribution per year even at the bottom) that gives a pension value of £28,000. A teacher on a salary of £21.5k effectively gets a pension fund addition of £28k! Being fair, not many teachers will get that much, but a few will. A second tier teacher that ‘only’ reaches a £57.5k final salary would get a pension of £41k, adding to £660k in total over their retirement, worth £15.3k per year on top of whatever salary they earn. So a good teacher on a salary of £45k may really be earning between £60k and £73k once their pensions are included. For those that don’t ever get to the top, the figures are of course less.

This all looks pretty rosy and teachers of course would like to keep this scheme, but as it stands it will be replaced in April 2015 by a new scheme based on career average earnings. That will have a huge impact on pension value for the top performers, but a more modest (though still significant)  impact on the ‘ordinary’ teacher.

But there is another component that benefits some teachers’ remuneration. Teachers on £45k are barely into the high rate tax bracket, and without wanting to generalise too much, teachers are often married to other teachers. Two teachers living together pay very low tax on their combined income. In many professional couples, one pays a fortune in tax and the other pays hardly any. It is very rare in other occupations for couples to have their salaries split so perfectly to incur minimal tax.

So, teachers at the moment are one of the most privileged groups in society and are facing being forced into a scheme more like the rest of us. I can understand why they want to keep such a generous reward scheme as they had, but I really can’t feel much sympathy for them striking.

 

 

And another new book: You Tomorrow, 2nd Edition

I wrote You Tomorrow two years ago. It was my first ebook, and pulled together a lot of material I’d written on the general future of life, with some gaps then filled in. I was quite happy with it as a book, but I could see I’d allowed quite a few typos to get into the final work, and a few other errors too.

However, two years is a long time, and I’ve thought about a lot of new areas in that time. So I decided a few months ago to do a second edition. I deleted a bit, rearranged it, and then added quite a lot. I also wrote the partner book, Total Sustainability. It includes a lot of my ideas on future business and capitalism, politics and society that don’t really belong in You Tomorrow.

So, now it’s out on sale on Amazon

http://www.amazon.co.uk/You-Tomorrow-humanity-belongings-surroundings/dp/1491278269/ in paper, at £9.00 and

http://www.amazon.co.uk/You-Tomorrow-Ian-Pearson-ebook/dp/B00G8DLB24 in ebook form at £3.81 (guessing the right price to get a round number after VAT is added is beyond me. Did you know that paper books don’t have VAT added but ebooks do?)

And here’s a pretty picture:

You_Tomorrow_Cover_for_Kindle

Is secular substitution of religion a threat to western civilisation?

In 1997 I delivered a presentation to the World Futures Society conference titled: The future of sex, politics and religion. In it, I used a few slides outlining secular substitutes for religion that constitute what I called ’21st century piety’. I’ve repeated my analysis many times since and still hold firmly by it, virtually unchanged since then. A lot of evidence since has backed it up, and lots of other people now agree.

My theory was that as people move away from traditional religion, the powerful inner drive remains to feel ‘holy’, that you are a good person, doing the right thing, on some moral high ground. It is a powerful force built into human nature, similar to the desire to feel social approval and status. When it is no longer satisfied by holding to religious rules, it may crystallise around other behaviours, that can mostly be summarised by ‘isms’. Vegetarianism and pacifism were the oldest ones to be conspicuous, often accompanied by New Ageism, followed soon by anti-capitalism, then environmentalism, now evolved into the even more religious warmism. Some behaviours don’t end in ism, but are just as obviously religion substitutes, such as subscribing strongly to political correctness or being an animal rights activist. Even hard-line atheism can be a religion substitute. It pushes exactly the same behavioural buttons.

I fully support protecting the environment, looking after animals, defending the poor, the powerless, the oppressed. I don’t mind vegetarians unless they start getting sanctimonious about it. I am not for a second suggesting there is anything bad about these. It is only when they become a religion substitute that they become problematic, but unfortunately that happens far too often. When something is internalised like a religious faith, it becomes almost immune to outside challenge, a faith unaffected by exposure to hard reality. But like religious faith, it remains a powerful driver of behaviour, and if the person involved is in power, potentially a powerful driver of policy. It can drive similar oppression of those with other world views, in much the same way as the Spanish Inquisition, but with a somewhat updated means of punishing the heretics. In short, the religion substitutes show many of the same problems we used to associate with the extremes of religion.

That’s the problem. The western world has managed pretty well over centuries to eventually separate religion from front line politics, so that politicians might pay lip service to some god or other to get elected, but would successfully put their religion aside once elected and the western state has been effectively secular for many years.  Even though they have gained acceptance in much of the wider population, because these religion substitutes are newer, they are not yet actively filtered from the official decision processes, and in many cases have even gained the power levels that religion once held at its peak. They feature much more heavily in government policies, but since they are faith based rather than reality based, the policies based on them are often illogical and can even be counter-productive, achieving the opposite of what they intend. Wishful thinking does not unfortunately rank highly among the natural forces understood by physicists, chemists or biologists. It doesn’t even rank highly as a social force.  Random policies seemingly pulled out of thin air don’t necessarily work just because they have been sprinkled with words such as equality, fairness and sustainability. Nature also requires that they meet other criteria – they have to follow basic laws of nature. They also have to be compatible with human social, economic, cultural and political forces. But having those sprinkles added is all that is needed to see them pass into legislation. 

And that is what makes religion substitutes a threat to western civilisation. Passing nonsensical legislation just because it sounds nice is a fast way to cripple the economy, damage the environment, wreck education or degrade social cohesion, as we have already frequently seen. I don’t need to pick a particular country, this is almost universally true  across the Western world. Policy making everywhere often seems to be little more than stringing together a few platitudes about ensuring fairness, equality, sustainability, with no actual depth or substance or systems analysis that would show reliable mechanisms by which they actually would happen, while ignoring unfashionable or unpleasant known forces or facts of nature that might prevent them from happening. Turning a blind eye to reality, while laying the wishful thinking on thickly and adding loads of nice sounding marketing words to make the policy politically accepted, using the unspoken but obvious threat of the Inquisition to ensure little resistance. That seems to be the norm now. 

If it were global then the whole world would decline, but it isn’t. Some areas are even worse crippled by the extremes of religion itself. Others seem more logical. Many areas face joint problems of corruption and poverty. With different problems and different approaches to solving them, we will all fare differently.

But we know from history that empires don’t last for ever. The decline of the West is well under way, with secular religion substitution at the helm.  When reality takes a back seat to faith, there can be no other outcome. And it is just faith, in different clothes, and it won’t work any better than religion did.

Casual displays

I had a new idea. If I was adventurous or an entrepreneur, I’d develop it, but I’m not, so I won’t. But you can, before Apple patents it. Or maybe they already have.

Many people own various brands of pads, but they are generally expensive, heavy, fragile and need far too much charging. That’s because they try to be high powered computers. Even e-book readers have too much functionality for some display purposes and that creates extra expense. I believe there is a large market for more casual displays that are cheap enough to throw around at all sorts of tasks that don’t need anything other than the ability to change and hold a display.

Several years ago, Texas Instruments invented memory spots, that let people add multimedia to everyday objects. The spots could hold a short video for example, and be stuck on any everyday object.These were a good idea, but one of very many good ideas competing for attention by development engineers. Other companies have also had similar ideas. However, turning the idea around, spots like this could be used to hold data for a  display, and could be programmed by a similar pen-like device or even a finger touch. Up to 2Mb/s can be transmitted through the skin surface.

Cheap displays that have little additional functionality could be made cheaply and use low power. If they are cheap enough, less than ten pounds say, they could be used for many everyday purposes where cards or paper are currently used. And since they are cheap, there could be many of them. With a pad, it has to do many tasks. A casual display would do only one. You could have them all over the place, as recipe cards, photos, pieces of art, maps, books, body adornment, playing cards, messages, birthday cards, instructions, medical advice, or anything. For example:

Friend cards could act as a pin-board reminder of a friend, or sit in a wallet or handbag. You might have one for each of several best friends. A touch of the spot would update the card with the latest photo or status from Facebook or another social site. Or it could be done via a smart phone jack. But since the card only has simple functionality  it would stay cheap. It does nothing that can’t also be done by a smartphone or pad, but the point is that it doesn’t have to. It is always the friend card. The image would stay. It doesn’t need anything to be clicked or charged up. It only needs power momentarily to change the picture.

There are displays that can hold pictures without power that are postcard sized, for less than £10. Adding a simple data storage chip and drivers shouldn’t add significantly to cost. So this idea should be perfectly feasible. We should be able to have lots of casual displays all over our houses and offices if they don’t have to do numerous other things. In the case of displays, less may mean more.

Next generation small computers

One of my posts two years ago suggested it would be a great time to bring back the Spectrum computer or something like it:

http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2010/01/15/bring-back-the-spectrum/

The new Raspberry Pi is pretty much exactly what I asked for (though I don’t think it came from my request) . For about £22, you get a computer. You plug in a keyboard and a TV and comms, then start programming. I am amazed it has been so long for someone to do it, but better late then never. Now a new generation of kids can learn how to program by messing about, instead of falling victim to the formal teaching that is provided by schools and university. I have always believed that learning how to hack programs together is the best way to understand what you are doing. You can learn formal methods later if need be. I don’t think hacking is the source of bad habits. Rather, it is more likely to show you the workings of the machine so you can exploit it better. I have seen too many taught programmers make good impressions of being mentally crippled after being forced to think in just one way, any fee-thinking and originality purged.

The Raspberry Pi isn’t the only tiny computer around though. FXI also have one, the size of a USB memory stick, and pretty impressive capability, albeit five times the price. It is easy to imagine how devices like this could really change how we work. I like to travel very light and haven’t carried a laptop for years – even the latest are still heavy and big and just aren’t worth the trouble. I won’t even use an iPAD because it is still obese, power-hungry, and altogether too primitive.Turning up at a conference with a memory stick containing your presentation has been fine as an alternative, but you are reliant on the conference laptop having the right setup. If you could bring a full PC memory stick and run everything from that, that would be better. At home it will be good to put media straight onto your TV without cluttering the room up with big boxes. A Slingbox has done that for years, and smart TVs now do it built-in, so it isn’t new, but this makes it a lot easier and cheaper to provide web and media on more conventional TVs.

On the go, you need some sort of visual display of course but soon we will have visor based head up displays that work with fingertip tracking or virtual  keyboards. Then these compact devices will come into their own. You’ll be fully connected and IT capable, but carrying hardly any weight.

Both of these new devices are small but capable, and most of the size they still have left is really interfacing to other devices. The processing guts is much smaller still. There is room to shrink further, and it is clear from these that the era of digital jewellery is almost with us. Imagine the enormous environmental benefits too, if we hardly need any resources to provide for all our IT needs.

It is the curse of futurology that you are never really happy with the stuff available today because you know what is round the corner. But when I can easily fit all my IT into my pocket as a memory stick and wear a lightweight visor as my interface, I’ll be pretty near content. Can’t be long now

The world is more complex than it seems. AARRGGHH!

Thanks @AKPosthuman for the title. I’ll be largely preaching to the converted here, but never mind.

Life seems to be cyclical in all sorts of ways. The one phasing me today is that all of a sudden I feel less sure about lots of things I was certain about a few years ago. Science, political allegiance, world order, basic values, even basic questions like who the hell am I really?

You start of as a child and know sod all, but by the time you’re out of nappies you persuade yourself (and fail to persuade your parents) that you know everything. Then you go to school and discover there are deeper problems than counting to ten. At each stage of qualifications you get to a point where you start thinking you understand stuff, or at least must be getting close. But it is an illusion. You only ever get to understand the answers to some of the questions you’ve been made aware of so far. A bit more education and a whole new range of questions appears. A garden snail is probably confident that it understands the world fine. And it does, it has answers to all it wonders about, it just doesn’t ask deep questions (guessing a bit here, I don’t really know what a snail thinks). It may well be true that ignorance is bliss. It certainly needs less effort.

After graduation, you get chucked in at the deep end in work, and are exposed to the full reality that you are a mere novice in a world of experts. A decade later, you’re starting to catch up and hopefully pushing ahead in at least some tiny areas. A decade after that, you’re flying high, in your own head at least. You’re confident in your field, understand how the world works, the arguments for and against X,Y and Z, and which is right. You have a well stocked basket of opinions on just about everything of importance to you, you know which flag to salute, who you are, what matters, what you believe and what you know to be trash. You know who to look up to, and who is full of crap. You know there is more to learn, that the world is much bigger and more complex than you thought, but that just drives you on, it’s what life is about.

And then you start to realise it isn’t even that simple. Just as you thought you realised the world was more complex than you thought, but you could allow for that, but you were at least starting to get the beginnings of a grip, you discover it is actually far more complex than you thought. Well, that’s where I realised I am this morning. Another cycle of discovery, starting all over again. I have to re-evaluate the whole damn thing from scratch again with revised thinking.

AKposthuman assures me that this is becoming wiser. God I hope he’s right. I’d hate to think my brain is decaying and yesterday’s easy problems now look hard because of that. If I can persuade myself  that what I’m seeing is just a glimpse of the next level of questions, and see how damned frightening it is, then I’ll be fine.

Thanks AK. Wonder if I’ll live long enough to see the start of the next cycle?

We need to rethink capitalism

Sometimes major trends can conceal less conspicuous ones, but sometimes these less conspicuous trends can build over time into enormous effects. I think that is the case now with automation versus economic turbulence. Global financial turmoil and re-levelling due to development are largely concealing another major trend towards automation. If we look at the consequences of developing technology, we can see an increasingly automated world as we head towards the far future. Most mechanical or mental jobs can be automated eventually, leaving those that rely on human emotional and interpersonal skills, but even these could eventually be largely automated. That would obviously have a huge effect on the nature of our economies.

Sometimes taking an extreme example is the best way to illustrate a point. In an ultra-automated pure capitalist world, a single person (or indeed even an AI) could set up a company and employ only AI or robotic staff and keep all the proceeds. Wealth would concentrate more and more with the people starting with it. There may not be any other employment, given that almost anything could be automated, so no-one else except other company owners would have any income source. If no-one else could afford to buy the products, their companies would die, and the economy couldn’t survive. This simplistic example nevertheless illustrates that pure capitalism isn’t sustainable in a truly high technology world. There would need to be some tweaking to distribute wealth effectively and make money go round a bit. Much more than current welfare state takes care of.

Some argue that we are already well on the way. Web developments that highly automate retailing have displaced many jobs and the same is true across many industries. There is no certainty that new technologies will create enough new jobs to replace the ones they displace.

We know from abundant evidence that communism doesn’t work. If capitalism won’t work much longer either, then we have some thinking to do. I believe that the free market is often the best way to accomplish things, but it doesn’t always deliver, and perhaps it can’t this time, and perhaps we shouldn’t just wait until entire industries have been eradicated before we start to ask which direction it should go.

So here is the key issue: Apart from short-term IP such as patents and copyright, the whole of humanity collectively owns the vast intellectual wealth accumulated via the efforts of thousands of generations.Yet traditionally, when a company is set up, no payment is made for the use of this intellectual property; it is assumed to be free. The effort and creativity of the founders, and the finance they provide, are assumed to be the full value, so they get control of the wealth generated (apart from taxes). 

Automated companies make use of this vast accumulated intellectual wealth when they deploy their automated systems. Why should ownership of a relatively small amount of capital and effort give the right to harness huge amounts of publicly owned intellectual wealth without any payment to the other owners, the rest of the people? Why should the rest of humanity not share in the use of their intellectual property to generate reward? I think this is where the rethinking should be focused. I see nothing wrong with people benefiting from their efforts, making profit, owning stuff, controlling it. But it surely is right that they should make proper payment to everyone else or jointly share profits according to the value of the shared intellectual property they use. With properly shared wealth generation, everyone would have income, and the system might work fine.

There are many ways this could be organised, and I haven’t designed anything worth writing about yet. Raising the issue is enough for this blog.

Time for the 13″ pad

800M people now have e-book readers, iPads or various other tablets. Most are around 7″ or 10″ screen size. The next obvious step upwards is magazine tablets.  There are a few very large format magazines out there, but Time magazine comes in at 13″ and I’d place my money on this being the next size for popular tablets. People can read books, papers and magazines on pads already, or even iphones for that matter, but with middle-aged eyes, I am not alone in wanting a bigger display and even the ipad feels cramped.

Smart-phones fit in your pocket, current pads are designed for taking out and about, but the 13″ pad will live mostly on the desk, coffee table or kitchen table. It is a better substitute for the laptop, and this is an important niche of course, but enabling new services in the home will be the big market for it. People who are used to reading paper magazines are more likely to buy a large format pad if the price is right. Games will look better on a bigger display, and so will videos. Even books can feel cramped on a 7″ pad, and in the home some will prefer to read them on large formats with bigger text instead of having to squint or juggle different pairs of glasses.

The 13″ format is more likely to be a shared device then the smaller formats. It is the natural home of home messaging, calendars, magazines, books, general web access and information services. Some of these are personal and will live on individually owned smaller pads, but the shared ones will move up.

I am expecting the phone to ring any minute as newspapers start producing their “what will happen next year then?” articles. Well, the 13″ pad will be top of my prediction list for 2012.