Dangers of COVID Passports

A lot seems to be happening, but there is a huge rotting elephant in the room that is rightfully getting a lot of comment, so here’s my bit, (re-blogged from my new newsletter)

This blog is about Digital ID Cards, aka COVID Passports.

Most of the government activity around lifting lockdown and trying to keep all the powers has been highly suspicious. It’s like they realize this is their best chance for a long time to force digital identity cards on us. Ordinary identity cards have been discussed several times before and always rejected, for very good reason, but now with the idea of a ‘COVID passport’, they think they can sneak them digital identity cards through on the back of that, a classic ‘bait and switch’ con. Offer a pass to get into the pub, and then give them a full-blown, high spec, and permanent digital ID card.

First, the bait isn’t as tasty as promised. It can’t and won’t guarantee you aren’t carrying COVID so the headline sales pitch is deliberately deceptive. At best, it can show that you passed a test fairly recently, so you are a bit less likely to pass on COVID, so we’ll tell pubs to let you in. If the pub is only one place you’ve been since your test, you may well have picked up some viruses en-route that you could infect others with. Any surface you’ve recently touched might have transferred viruses to you, that you might transfer to any surface you touch in the pub. The test could also have been a false negative, saying you’re clean when you aren’t. So the bait isn’t all that tasty after all.

As for the switch, make no mistake, if government manages to force through ‘COVID passports’, you will have a full-blown digital ID card for the rest of your life. Even in the unlikely event that Boris kept his promise that the COVID passports will expire after a year, the data collected about you by government, the big IT companies, and the authorities will never be destroyed. We already have history of some police forces illegally obtaining and keeping DNA records. Why should we assume all authorities and companies will comply 100% with any future directive that goes against their interests?

Loss of privacy, lack of fairness, social exclusion and tribal conflicts are just some of the first issues, leading quickly on to totalitarianism.

Lots of totally unrelated functionality will be included even from the start, which will quickly be added to as technology permits, and forever keep you under extreme surveillance and government control, never to be free ever again or ever again to have any real privacy or freedom of speech. We will very soon have Chinese style blanket surveillance and social credit scores.

Think about it. Given that the card can’t guarantee safety anyway, given that you’re already very unlikely to die from COVID, surely the simple card you got when you were vaccinated would be quite enough? Sure, it doesn’t guarantee you are who it says (mine doesn’t even have my name on it), you might have borrowed it, but so what – going from a tiny risk to a slightly less tiny risk is surely not that big a deal? Surely that small reduction of risk implied by a proper COVID passport is not worth the enormous price of loss of privacy and liberty?

So it might let you go to the pub, but there is already no reason why you shouldn’t be allowed to, so that’s a false choice manufactured by government as leverage to make you accept it. The risk now is tiny. Anyone under 50 was never at any real risk, and all those over 50 have either been vaccinated or had the free choice, except an extremely small number who can’t for medical reasons. With the real risk of catching and dying from COVID already tiny, the government is already only keeping us locked down for reasons other than safety, to try to force us to accept digital ID cards as a condition of getting some freedom back, or the illusion of freedom back, temporarily.

OK, so what’s the big deal with having one? As the vaccines minister says (paraphrasing) what’s so bad about having a pass to get into the pub if it keep us all safe? In any case, you already have a passport. It has your full name, a photo that used to look like you, your date of birth and nationality. But it is paper, and even if it can be machine read at the airport, you don’t have to carry it everywhere. It can’t be read without you putting it within centimetres of a reader.

A digital ID card resides on your mobile phone, so location is one extra function that your passport doesn’t provide. It knows exactly where you are, and since those you are with also will need one, it will know who you are with, all the time. Very soon, government will know all your friends, family, colleagues and associates, how often and where you meet. Government will quickly build a full social map, detailing every citizen and how they relate to every other. If they have someone of interest, they can immediately identify everyone they have contact with. They will know everywhere you have been, by which means of transport. The photo will be recent too, probably far better quality than the one you took years ago for your passport. So if you attend a demonstration, they will know how you got there, what time you arrived, who you met with beforehand, which part of the crowd you were in, and together with surveillance cameras and advanced AI, be able to put together a pretty comprehensive picture of your behavior during that demonstration.

Another extra function is your medical status. That starts with your COVID status, but will also store details of your vaccine appointments, COVID tests, and a so far unspecified range of other medical data from the start. We can safely assume that will include the sort of stuff you are asked for every time you go near a clinic – your home address, NHS number and who your GP is, your age, your sex, your gender identity, your race, your religion, and various aspects of your medical history. Even if not included in the first release, government will argue that it is useful to include all sorts of extra medical data ‘to save you time’ and ‘for your convenience’, such as what drugs you are on, what medical conditions you have, what vulnerabilities you have and importantly, what risks you present to others. Using location, it can also infer your sexual preferences.

Obviously it then becomes even easier to insist that to ‘protect the NHS’ and ‘to keep you healthy’, that the app should also monitor your activity, and link to your Fitbit or Apple watch to make sure you do your best to stay in shape. Some health apps do that anyway and some people like that, because it’s part of their social activity, and they even get discount private medical care or free entertainment. But will that mean that if you don’t look after your health by exercising enough, that you go to the back of the queue for treatment, or for other government-provided services, or that you no longer get free dental care, or free eye checks, or free prescriptions. Maybe you won’t be able to buy a tube ticket if the destination is within walking distance, until your health improves. Maybe you will be told to go to the gym instead of the cinema or pub. Maybe if you do far too little exercise, you should pay more for prescriptions? Also, some people are killed by drunk driving, so if you have been in a pub or restaurant, or any place that sells alcohol, your car ignition will be deactivated until you submit a negative alcohol test. It’s very easy to see how these and many other functions can be bolted on once you have a digital ID card. Each will seem to have a reasonable enough justification if presented with enough spin, to make sure it gets implemented.

It doesn’t have to stop at health. Police will want to access data too, to ‘control crime’ and ‘ensure our safety’, and will then link to their various surveillance systems, and presumably with the same degree of political bias they routinely apply today, often pushing their own ideology rather than policing actual law. So, asking for microphone access and camera access, they could have tens of millions of cameras and microphones all over the country for blanket 360 degree 24/7 surveillance, using AI to sift through it to check for any potential hate crime for example, or detect any suspicious behavior patterns that might indicate a tendency towards a future crime. Minority report is only a fraction of what is possible.

These are the types of things already in place in China via their social credit system, though there are many other ‘features’ I haven’t listed too. It monitors people’s behaviors via various platforms, and then permits or denies access to various levels of services. If we get digital ID cards, it is inevitable that we will go the whole way down that same route.

Police and health authorities might both like your DNA record to be stored too. Then they can ensure you get the best possible health care, or quickly charge someone if any of their relatives has similar DNA to that found (for any reason) at the scene of any crime (real or perceived).

The power to monitor and control the population is irresistible to most politicians, certainly enough to get legislation through, and enough to ensure that powers are renewed every time they come up for review. If they come up for review. The government has already moved goalposts for restoration of our freedoms many times. At this point, it is becoming less and less likely we will ever get them back. If digital ID is voted through, or forced through by Johnson bypassing debate, then we will never be free again.

All the above dangers arise from government, which after all, we vote into power. They are supposed to be acting on our behalf to implement the things we vote for. Whether they are trying to do that now, or acting on external forces from the WEF, UN, China, Russia or other entities is anyone’s guess. What is certain though, is that with a government issued digital ID permanently on your phone, many bit IT companies will be very interested. Today, you can use any account and email address and it doesn’t need to be genuine. For a range of reasons, many people use fake identities for their Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter, or Microsoft accounts. Friend and contact lists often bear little resemblance to the groups of people we actually hang out with. With a digital ID, the details are the ones on our birth certificates, the ones we have to share with government. Being able to create social maps would improve the ability to market enormously, so companies like Google and Facebook will love having access to genuine certified ID, and if that includes lots of other data too, even better. The ways you are marketed to, the quality of service you get, and even the prices you are charged will all change. To make a COVID passport at all useful, it will be necessary to allow other apps to access some or all of the data, and once that data has been accessed by the big IT companies, even if the passports later expire, it will be kept. There may be assurances that it will be wiped, but they cannot be guaranteed, and we know from history that companies (e.g. Google) may collect and use private data and then when caught claim that a junior employee must have done it by accident and without authorization.

With cancel culture and assorted activism accessing all this data too, the future could quickly become dystopian.The dangers of COVID passports are enormous. A nightmare police state lies ahead, with total surveillance, oppression, cancellation and social credit scores, tribal conflicts, social isolation, loneliness and general misery are simply too high a price for being ‘allowed’ to go to the pub.

We should just go anyway, it’s perfectly safe, and if government objects, we should change the government.

The COVID WFH Legacy

What will remain from WFH and Learning from Home

by: 

Alexandra Whittington and ID Pearson

Introduction

COVID has stimulated rapid change in technology and work practices that support working from home. Some of the changes might have happened anyway, but over much longer time. Some of the changes benefit workers, some their companies and some both, so we shouldn’t expect a return to the ways things were before COVID. Some of those changes are here to stay. It may be too early to be absolutely certain what will stick and what won’t, but we can identify enough of the forces at play to be pretty sure.

Fallen barriers

We always knew we’d communicate using video in the future – all the sci-fi said so, and it made perfect sense – but there were lots of barriers in the way. Many of those have now gone. We now have a wide range of good video comms platforms, not just Skype. Some are integrated and much better suited to business practices.

We have seen rapid parallel growth of business-oriented social media platforms such as Teams and Slack, Clubhouse and many others. Some of these will inevitably die out, and some will survive, as  rapid evolution and competition weeds out those that don’t work as well as others, or are limited to just iOS or Android. With so much reward available, competition will be fierce and development rapid. These platforms will evolve, but they will not go away, and our future work practices will include them.

Hardware technology such as better cameras, with higher resolutions and light sensitivities, better focus and face tracking, have all made it much easier to accept video communications. Faster and cheaper broadband, incl mobile, makes it possible to transmit the high data bandwidths needed. These barriers have only recently been breached, but now that they’re gone, they will never return. Good, cheap, high quality video communication is here to stay.

Although less glamorous, cheap and attractive LED webcam lighting has also helped a little.

Green screen technology bypasses privacy issues. If you don’t want colleagues to see what your home office decor looks like, or that you have to use a tiny room, it is very easy to add a background image or video. Again, this is a recent tech development, another barrier that was high before COVID that is now gone forever.

A recent Economist article showed that the share prices of electronic payments companies rocketed during the COVID lockdown. Of course we already had online credit card or Paypal (and Stripe etc) payments before, but WFH has incentivised their development and removal of any minor barriers to them staying and being permanent.

It isn’t just technology that was holding things back. Forced familiarity has broken the significant adoption barriers. There was a critical mass of users that was needed, and it simply wasn’t there. When nobody you knew was using the tools, what was the point? First adopters get poor rewards. Now that everyone has been forced to use these practices, the social acceptance and incentive barriers have gone.

Overall, there are now very few barriers to using online communications tools such as video platforms for everyday business meetings. Before COVID there were lots.

Ongoing Incentives

COVID revealed many benefits of working from home. Some were always there, but again, forced familiarity has been a good introduction to them. The first and most obvious are no commute time, no travel costs and other significant financial savings such as not having to buy expensive coffees, takeaway lunches, or even much of a work wardrobe, especially as online video normally only shows head and shoulders. There are also major savings for employers on office space. They will still need offices, but far less space, only needing to accommodate the maximum number of staff likely to be there. Many companies are shrinking the space they rent or lease, with huge impacts on property values in cities. As people gradually return to offices, there may be some growth again, but the savings for companies are high enough for them to encourage staff to keep working remotely as much as possible.

There are even some minor social advantages in not going to the office, such as not being forced to meet people you don’t like much. Introverts may be very happy with fewer face to face interactions. Most people don’t like meetings, and it is easier to resist endless meetings when you’re not in the office. The fact that zoom etc are not actually much fun reduces any incentive to hold a meeting unless it is actually useful. This benefits employers and employees. Meeting junkies will find it harder to force colleagues into an endless stream of pointless meetings, and that colleague whose ego was built around constant meeting attendance and being seen to be involved in things will miss out. Good!

In terms of interpersonal experiences, the lockdown period has been particularly effective at merging the personal and professional domains. This massive experiment in working from home has revealed the extra burdens on working parents, women in particular. Now that these challenges have had the spotlight and attention, don’t expect women to go back to the status quo very easily. This entire episode has been not just an apt reflection of society’s inability to create a proper work-life balance for half the population, but a reminder that a 40-hour workweek favors men. Gender equality has actually lost footing during the pandemic. This is unacceptable during a pandemic or under ideal conditions. Many families were rewarded with more quality time and that’s probably going to be preserved as long as people can manage to maintain it.

Persistent fear and social cooling

COVID will not go away completely; new viruses will emerge frequently around the world, and from now on, each will cause a fresh round of fear – we can no longer dismiss them as things that only affect far-away countries. Occasionally there will inevitably be a virus far worse than COVID. COVID killed far less than 1% of its victims but some can kill up tp 40%. 

The current nervousness and mild suspicion people often feel around strangers is very likely to persist for many years. Indeed, many people have learned to actually fear being close to others, which may persist as a long term phobia, mild for some, stronger for others. So we should expect that people will shake hands less, kiss, cuddle and hug less, and there will generally be less physical maintenance of emotional bonding between people. Some of our body’s emotional mechanisms are associated with touch, such as release of various hormones or neurotransmitters when we have physical contact with others, so this reaction is not just imaginary. These biological mechanisms evolved over millions of years, and if they are impeded, our social relationships will be weaker. We call that social cooling. Persistent fear will certainly lower the attraction of face to face proximity and make it easier to accept remote behaviour. 

Though there isn’t a lot of evidence yet, these effects may well be stronger in children and young adults, whose brains are still relatively fluid. Pre-COVID behaviours were also less ingrained in young people simply because they had less time exposed to them. Given the rapid emotional and hormonal changes around puberty, many young people going through that phase during this emotionally intensive period may suffer lifelong effects.

COVID-19 tamped down all social activities except those that could be experienced online. Unexpectedly, everything from parent-teacher conferences to cocktails shifted somewhat coherently into the virtual world, while concerts, comedy performances, exercise classes, shopping, cinema, museum exhibits, and religious worship were all transformed into at-home digital experiences in 2020. Given the impact of social distancing, will private homes continue to morph into cultural and social spaces?  Socializing from home is not only more convenient, but is undoubtedly less expensive and time consuming. The popular Broadway hit “Hamilton” serves as a great example of how exclusive cultural content was made more accessible during lockdown.  Millions of people were able to experience a performance that was streamed (free) across the internet during lockdown. Previously, steep ticket prices and geographic proximity were huge barriers that kept the masses from enjoyment of the popular show. It’s quite possible that customers will demand similar options in the future, which could have a democratizing effect that is quite needed on things like arts patronage, physical activity, and leisure time. However, how will life look when our home is not just a shelter, but a workplace, school house, university hall…and a fun place as well? 

Governmental temptations and pressures

Government has also gained some very valuable new powers that it will not let go easily. Lockdown itself is a very draconian measure that could never have been introduced without a threat such as COVID or major war, but it will be very tempting to use it frequently from now on, for any virus, any kind of civil unrest, even crime control. Worst of all, it is already being seriously considered as a means to achieve carbon zero, with lockdowns every 2 years being debated. 

Now that government has that tool and knows we will accept its use even with weak evidence for its necessity or effectiveness, it may well be used in future any time it is considered useful. 

The prospect of a lockdown at any time will have significant effects on most company strategies, plans and provisions. It doesn’t need to be used to have a significant effect – it just needs to be a possibility. 

Other tools that are extremely attractive to government, that had only previously been resisted because of fear of public reaction are now much easier to push that they know the public will mostly accept them given even a moderate excuse. Increasing surveillance, monitoring, testing, face recognition and new ID mechanisms are just a few of the more obvious ones. COVID has justified accelerated development of all these techs without the requirement to further justify them, but they add up to a very rich (and still rapidly growing) toolkit for surveillance, monitoring, control and oppression.

Some financial benefits accrue to the government too. With fewer people seeking medical help, and indeed, wth many old people now deceased, there will be lower costs for health care for a few years, or at least it will cost less to clear the huge backlog that has built up during lockdown. It will be easy for the government to continue its message of helping the NHS, deterring some people from seeking help. 

Other health care changes will remain too. Doctors and hospitals love working remotely. It reduces their workload (many people don’t bother trying to see them and just put up with things), it reduces their direct risks and costs (infection, violence, and the need for chaperones), surgery costs (insurance, waiting room space, car parks, staff numbers, consumables and costs of missed appts. Since they continue to receive full payments for each person on their books, these add up to greatly increased profits. They will resist returning to pre-COVID practices unless they are offered even greater pay.

Incidental government benefits include lower traffic levels, which reduces both road costs and congestion, reducing pressure on government from these directions. However, lower traffic also  disincentivises taxes based on mileage, and favours taxes based on car ownership, so this will delay decisions such as replacement of car licenses by road tolling.

Lower mileage for electric cars reduces costs of public charging infrastructure and numbers of power stations, and allows more time for installation. This makes a significant government incentive to keep WFH if they can.

It’s worth pointing out that, combined with social media, WFH tools are enabling political activism in the COVID era. Technologies that allow people to text, call, or email strangers about issues for which they share a passion is a step forward in evolving civic engagement. Numerous social justice issues that have gained the spotlight during the pandemic year (democracy and voting, police brutality, women’s safety, racial inequality, to name a few) may be sustained indefinitely in the public discourse with the help of smartphones, social media accounts, and communications technology that brings information around the world at the speed of light.Throwing our support behind issues, candidates, campaigns, and funds is easier than ever. Also, we are far more tuned in to what’s happening in other countries than our own, given the global nature of the pandemic. 

Wider economic effects

It is also possible to foresee persistent long term economic effects originating from COVID WFH practice. For example, companies now know that with WFH embedded and proven they can consider sourcing some staff from the global market. For some roles, that might mean a much bigger pool to pick from, so they can increase staff quality and reduce staff costs. For other fields, it will have no effect because the skills needed are localised. For still others, it will produce a global market for elite skills. The consequences will be that we will see elite salaries rise high, commodity salaries reduce greatly, but some roles will remain unaffected. For roles that need physical presence or face to face working, there will also be no major effect on staff cost.

A headline in the financial news recently read “Zoom towns are boomtowns”, citing the top 15 US “Zoom towns” composed of urbanites who relocated from big cities to small towns during the pandemic. White-collar workers are moving in record numbers to suburbs and towns outside of urban areas,which is a trend that is not going to soon reverse, judging by Manhattan’s low real estate prices. Major companies who have made all-remote workforces the norm are encouraging this trend while feeding another growing trend – digital  nomadism. Digital nomads will be a formidable type of talent after the pandemic. Exploring the world with a laptop and a vaccine passport will never have seemed so appealing as it will for young people who’ve been cooped up for a year or more. The fact that a survey by an employment search website found that a third of the respondents said they’d quit their job before going back to the office suggests that the employer/employee power structure has shifted in favor of workers (at least, knowledge workers). Demographic patterns like these will impact the financial grandeur of large cities, but allow smaller cities to grow. There was already a significant trend towards de-urbanisation, but lockdown has accelerated it. This could change how we view the globalized economy. 

During COVID expat employees were frequently sent back to their home countries, resulting in a type of reverse brain drain. Countries like Italy and Greece, for example,experienced some economic benefits when native segments of the educated workforce returned. The numbers were lower than some people had predicted, at around 7%, but this trend may continue if expats latch on to the WFH trend that, along with the growing acceptance of digital nomad life, gives employees a great deal more control over where they live. If it sticks, it could alter the traditional flow of talent from developing economies to more developed ones. Some countries could become havens (tax or otherwise) for affluent people interested in the digital nomad way of life. 

Travel will be harder

Business travel was always perceived as a nuisance to some and a benefit to others. Again, some effects will persist from the COVID era. Most obvious is the need for COVID passports, which government is busily developing even as they pour scorn on the idea in press briefings. They are very likely to become compulsory not by government decree, though that may happen, but by the likely fact that people will have very inconvenient restrictions on what they will be allowed to do without one. That might remain for several years, and by then, new viruses are likely to emerge that will create an excuse to keep health passports, even as COVID is replaced by other names. Health passports might eventually vanish, but they may well be here to stay. During the next several years, we should also expect harsher treatments and tedious systems at many locations, such as potentially unpleasant testing enforcement. Anal swabs? No thanks! Potential confinement might also be a lingering threat that could sometimes become an issue during a trip. For example, quarantines, backed up with fines or imprisonment can suddenly take force. This presents a significant risk for some trips to certain areas.

Travel costs will increase too, not least due to having to allow potential expenses for the risks just mentioned. For a while, airlines will have to be highly competitive on prices to regain some lost business, but the longer term dictates higher prices to cover higher costs, lower traffic and desire to maintain profits and recoup losses during lockdown.

The ability to build up frequent flyer points on business travel may become extinct after COVID. A major lesson learned from 2020 is that some meetings should really just be an email. Therefore, after the pandemic, the criteria for what constitutes necessary business travel will change. Events that once would have required a trip will be evaluated differently, both by the company and the employee. In fact, some employees (particularly those who have relocated far away from big cities) may expect to receive bonuses or incentives for travelling away from home for work. Even though the vaccine will ease people’s fears around contracting COVID, business travelers in the next few years could still make a case that international travel puts them at risk and they deserve better compensation. Another argument would be that the costs of travel can no longer be justified as a business expense unless a face-to-face presence is absolutely necessary. And, working mothers may push back against the expectation to return to “normal,” when normal was an untenable set of demands that served to reinforce gender inequalities. Now that the work-life balance scales have tipped, don’t expect them to go right back to where they were in 2019.

All of this adds up to a major disincentive to business travel and favours working remotely. These effects might decline gradually over time, but they will remain significant for several years.

Future communications technology

Lockdown made us adapt to using basic video comms (though infinitely better and more versatile than we had a couple of years ago), but tech for AR and VR is accelerating and it won’t be long before they have their effects too. Surround audio, high resolution video, and full 3D immersion will soon become expected. Eventually, as VR becomes more ingrained into product visualisation and design, gaming and R&D, and even marketing and sales we will see a spread of sensory translation technologies, which today include vibrating gloves and other haptics, but which will eventually evolve into active skin (tiny devices embedded on or in our skin, linking to our nervous systems to record and replay sensations), and active lenses, writing high resolution 3D imagery straight onto our retinas.

We already know some of the roles of VR in home working – product visualisation, simulation, meetings, and full body, full size communication, as well as in gaming, retail, travel and the entertainment industry. These roles will develop and multiply, becoming forever ingrained into everything we do online, simultaneously becoming better, cheaper and more intuitive to use.

Roles of AR will include a wide range of useful overlays, and will also likely be a reasonable substitute for VR in environments where safety hazards otherwise prevent pure VR use. Avatars will have some business utility, but will really come into their own in social networking and gaming where they can add novelty, beauty, personality extension or role clarification, but also enable gender swaps, age swaps, roleplay and many other features.

AI can also add many extra features to comms, such as meeting facilitation, note taking, minutes, project management, or executive assistant and secretarial functions. Industry-specific AI can even add virtual experts in particular areas to a meeting attendance list.

Combining technologies, avatars can interwork with AI to offer personal substitution, so you can be in two places at once, or just duck out of unwanted meetings but still be represented partially. For those people on the autistic spectrum, AI could interwork with their avatar to enhance their social presence and improving the quality of their social interactions. Avatars and AI could also help introverts and less-assertive women to get a word in at meetings versus their pushier male or loudmouth colleagues. Avatars driven by AI can essentially level the playing field for everyone, especially if AI is chairing the meeting and managing who gets to talk when.

AI, Robotics and Drones

We see rapid progress on automation already. Robotics continues to become more advanced but also cheaper, making it feasible to automate jobs that previously were too difficult or uneconomic to automate. This has a bearing on outsourcing overseas, because if robotics is cheap enough, the incentives to move work to another country is lessened. This might therefore somewhat offset some of the forces described earlier that enable exporting to cheaper countries.

AI generally is improving, especially with deep learning gradually catching up and exceeding human capabilities in many niche areas. Further away is artificial general intelligence, where AI can learn to think across wide fields just like humans. It will come, but the next few years will still see most development in niche-specific AI, where there is still a lot of low hanging fruit to pick. 

There is an increasing consensus that the best way to use AI is in partnership with humans, upskilling them to do jobs faster or better than they could otherwise. In that sense, AI can be thought of as just more of the same advance that we saw when Google replaced an hour in a library by a minute on a search engine. It will improve efficiency and productivity but not necessarily replace an individual job. However, in some areas, it might allow easier exporting of the job to a lower wage country, while importantly keeping the intellectual property of the AI in the home country.

Drones may have been rather overhyped in some areas but will still be important. An aerial delivery drone will probably not be allowed to land on a town pavement in front of a terraced house, where it could obviously present a risk of injury to pets, children or passers-by. However, they can safely be used already for delivery to a properly designed industrial (or hospital) delivery bay staffed by people trained in proper H&S procedures. In between, are people in suburbs with back garden lawns. Although technically feasible to deliver here, there are still many potential objections, so we should assume that this won’t be commonplace for some years. Like AI, drone delivery can speed things up compared to road delivery, making just in time industrial processes better, and allowing more distributed processing.

Drones also have other uses such as security and surveillance. Some of the human roles associated with these can theoretically be implemented anywhere, so again, this allows export of some jobs. They also allow direct substitution of some jobs, such as delivery driving or helicopter surveillance.

Training and learning

Many of the same factors apply in learning as for working from home. On-line learning has grown enormously during lockdown, helping retraining or simply alleviating boredom. The learning industry has somehow managed to retain its fees and structures during lockdown, but that is surely not sustainable, however hard they try. In the background, very many online courses have been springing up that allow people to learn fast in their own time, in their own homes, at low cost. This mostly new competition will take time to substitute or replace old courses, but the trend is now irreversible and some rebalancing will happen, with lowering of fee levels being just one of the consequences.

One key differentiating factor in online courses is whether they give a certificate. Many courses are free to do, but the certificate has quite a high price. As global markets for online working become the norm, certification will become increasingly important, so that business model might persist. It allows training companies to claim they are providing valuable social benefits while still making good incomes from those who can afford to pay.

There are particular benefits in using AR/VR for training, especially when learning skills appropriate to specific physical environments, where the work environment can be precisely duplicated, showing its risks, interfaces and so on, so that people can learn how to work safely in that particular environment without actually being there. AR and VR engage visual and audio memory instead of just text, potentially improving recall, though that assumes more stimulating visual mechanisms than bullet points on Powerpoint slides!

Another interesting application of VR to training and learning involves the use of VR to teach so-called “soft skills” such as tolerance. Workplaces may expect future WFH employees to use VR training to learn communication, empathy, and inclusion. One example already available is to help people understand the effects of racism. It may prove helpful to provide highly immersive employee training experiences. One advantage of VR is that it can be performed in the privacy of one’s home or at the workplace. Given the reverberations of the remote working revolution, emotional intelligence may become particularly important as the workforce becomes more distributed and people are in less face-to-face contact with colleagues.

There will be obvious effects on course costs and prices when class sizes can be in thousands, and for many courses, costs per attendee can drop very low indeed if materials are just online, available any time any place any language on demand. Superstar teachers with elite skills will be sought after globally and attract very high pay, while commodity teachers competing with massive global supply so on low pay. Indeed, some superstar teachers will have their own companies.

As chatbot tech continues to develop, AI guidance for students will also improve, so AI can act as a virtual tutor, or even lecturer, allowing a lecturer alternative to boring text. This has real potential to replace many teachers, or allow other teachers to reach out to more people, with AI dealing with some students while they focus their human skills where they are needed.

Post-COVID, educators might find edtech helps to get students caught up academically. However, this should not be a priority until sufficient socialization, sense of security, and some structured sense of stability has been restored for the youngest students. Sound emotional foundations are needed for good education, and they will need some extensive repairs. An interesting conversation that has emerged from the quarantine year is the impact this period will have on healthy childhood development. Education experts in the UK have proposed “a summer of play” to make up for the past school year’s deficiencies – not academically, but socially. With mental health-related red flags raised across swaths of society, it is being advised to forgo extra summer lessons meant for kids to make up learning losses, but instead focus on stress-relief and joy. 

Team Building

Bringing people back together at the workplace after COVID is probably going to offer some novel experiences. It may be fair to say workplace socialization will never be the same. Spending time with our teams serendipitously may become curtailed by the fact that so many employees are showing a preference for keeping a flexible schedule. There’s also the fact that some people have moved hundreds of miles away from their team during the pandemic relocation frenzy. And, inconsistent vaccination uptake across society could impede the ability to meet face-to-face. There’s the sense that it will be a significant aspect of the WFH revolution, but what will team building look like after the pandemic?

Retreats in nature, in luxury, and/or highly secluded locations may be a valuable tool in the future. If an organization is interested in increasing employee morale of teams across a distributed remote workforce, for example, it seems like attractive vacation-style locations will be the best way to lure people from their comfortable cocoons to attend team building events. These kinds of functions could become the perfect antidote to Zoom fatigue, providing intimacy and bonding on a personal level that would permeate over six months or a year. 

It’s theoretically possible that some of these could also be implemented in VR, which is a novelty in itself for many, and can still achieve some of the same goals alongside remote working. However, real life will generally be better than VR for most people and that is where the main focus is likely to be.

Furthermore, hotels, AirBnB, and other forms of lodging (including castles) are quickly transforming into coworking spaces. This trend not only shows how fluid the concept of a workplace has become during the pandemic, but indicates that the business travel industry is adapting to the WFH/digital nomad lifestyle as well. The advantage for organizations is that team building can now complement, rather than obstruct, work-life balance by doubling as a vacation, since the hospitality industry is beginning to resemble WeWork anyway. Several hotels have implemented programs designed for working throughout the day out of guest rooms and other spaces. Some WFH (work from hotel) packages during the lockdown were geared toward affluent working parents and included a tutor for helping children with online lessons during the day, catering exclusively to digital nomads that travel in packs (eg, families).

Recruitment and Personnel Management

For organizations, a huge advantage of distributed work teams is that it increases the size of the job applicant pool. With many jobs now allowing WFH, companies can choose from a huge range of potential talent. The ability to interview and screen applicants online has also surely saved companies hundreds of thousands in travel and lodging expenses. Post-COVID recruitment practices will probably continue along these lines, shunning expensive and elaborate travel except for the most upper-level positions. Interview tactics for virtual job seekers will become a learnable and teachable skill.

The rise of WFH implies tremendous growth in technologies intended to monitor employees’ time at different tasks. The “big brother” aspect of the remote and distributed workforce has not reared its ugly head very prominently but it is waiting. Herein lies a huge uncertainty going forward: how much surveillance are employees and students willing to give up in order to learn and work from home indefinitely? 

Career progress & WFH

Before COVID, occasional studies suggested that people in the office are typically better noticed by their managers and thus more likely to be promoted, and at the same time, people working from home often feltl undervalued, or were (reasonably) concerned that the boss suspected they aren’t working as hard as they are. We’re still waiting to understand the full impacts on these issues since COVID lockdown, though some are obvious, but in any case quite a lot of people have started new jobs since then and some have never even met their bosses or colleagues except on zoom. These factors will have very significant effects on whether someone is accepted as much a part of a team as those who already were pre-COVID. 

Education too must suffer some of this problem, such as the problem of teachers assessing work if they have never met the student submitting it. A teacher can’t judge a student’s total merits by just marking their homework.

20 Things for the 2020’s

Obviously, the historical event known as the COVID-19 pandemic has had and will have a lasting influence on the world for some time. Considering epidemics and pandemics are natural occurrences that we can count on, we should view these instances as random catalysts of social change. What is new about COVID-19 seems like it represents the first big pandemic in a real-time globalized world, thanks to modern technology.

The changes we sense since COVID hit are social and technological in nature. They properly demonstrate the symbiotic relationship between the two, creating new behaviors/activities, while curtailing others. Below we offer two sets of 20 things: 20 that aren’t coming back and 20 that won’t go away. Welcome to the 2020’s.

20 Twenty things that won’t come back:

  1. Full-time cubicle life
  2. Five-day conferences
  3. Face-to-face parent-teacher meetings
  4. Formal business dress code
  5. Demoralizing team building events
  6. Workplace policies biased against working parents
  7. Default face-to-face contact at school/work
  8. Educational experiences without a digital component
  9. Long, boring, in-person training
  10. Disproportionate work-life balance
  11. Elaborate/expensive employee recruitment
  12. Inadequate technology skills
  13. Frequent flyers, and air-miles
  14. Technological illiteracy
  15. Agoraphobia as a mental illness needing treatment
  16. Homes that don’t include office space
  17. Unnecessary meetings
  18. Packed commuter trains
  19. High wages for jobs that can be done anywhere
  20. The two hour commute

20 Things that won’t go away:

  1. Dismal birth rates
  2. Surveillance capitalism
  3. Digital ID
  4. Telehealth
  5. Governmental monitoring/track and trace apps
  6. Lockdown powers
  7. Reinforced green regulations
  8. Public willingness to do as govt tells them
  9. Use of face masks during flu season
  10. Zoom kit – LED ring lights, decent cameras and microphones
  11. Fear or suspicion of strangers
  12. High house prices in rural and pretty areas
  13. Lower daytime city population
  14. Toilet roll hoarding
  15. Higher prices for holidays/hotels/air travel (may be short term special offers)
  16. Overcrowded restaurants, holiday spots, sporting events
  17. Brick-and-mortar schools
  18. Shopping, but mostly as a social activity and diversion
  19. Online friends you’ll never meet
  20. Online shopping

The Authors

Alexandra Whittington

alwhittington@uh.edu

Alexandra Whittington is a futurist educator, writer, and researcher. She is a Lecturer at the University of Houston, where her students describe her as “passionate” about the future. Her courses explore the impact of technology on society and the future of human ecosystems. She has published dozens of articles exploring diverse aspects of the future, often from a feminist perspective. Alex has co-authored and co-edited several books, including A Very Human Future and Aftershocks and Opportunities: Scenarios for a Post-Pandemic Future. She studied Anthropology (BA) and Studies of the Future (MS) at the University of Houston.

ID Pearson BSc DSc(hc) CITP MBCS FWAAS

idpearson@gmail.com

Dr Pearson has been a futurologist for 30 years, tracking and predicting developments across a wide range of technology, business, society, politics and the environment. Graduated in Maths and Physics and a Doctor of Science. Worked in numerous branches of engineering from aeronautics to cybernetics, sustainable transport to electronic cosmetics. 1900+ inventions including text messaging and the active contact lens, more recently a number of inventions in transport technology, including driverless transport and space travel. BT’s full-time futurologist from 1991 to 2007 and now runs Futurizon, a small futures institute. Writes, lectures and consults globally on all aspects of the technology-driven future. Eight books and over 850 TV and radio appearances. Chartered Member of the British Computer Society and a Fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science.

Want to be a futurologist? Key roles in the futures industry

joint blog with Tracey Follows

I spent most of my career as a futurologist and thoroughly enjoyed it. I simply can’t imagine not being interested in what lies ahead, or ever stop thinking about it, so I guess I’ll be a futurologist until the day I die. I’d strongly recommend it as a career, and it is becoming much more fashionable now, so I get lots of emails asking me how to get into it.

Thousands of people call themselves futurists or futurologists. One of the commonest questions I am asked is what is the difference? They are the same thing. I used the term ‘futurologist’, because I study the future, so futurology is simply the obvious and most appropriate term. ‘Futurist’ is unfortunately much more commonly used. Before it came into use for people who study the future, the term ‘futurist’ already referred to an artist who practices futurism, an artistic and social movement that originated in Italy in the early 20th century, emphasizing speed, technology, youth, violence, and objects such as the car, the airplane, and the industrial city. At a stretch today, it could also be interpreted as someone with a futuristic lifestyle, such as a gadget freak. I can think of no sensible derivation for it as a term for someone who studies or talks about the future, but we are where we are. A futurist is therefore just a futurologist with lower regard for English. However, since 90% or more of them use that term, I pragmatically concede defeat and use ‘futurist’ to avoid endless argument. Futurologist is correct, but futurist is used more frequently. I now use them interchangeably.

Everyone thinks about the future sometimes. Even animals do so. Sheep may gather under trees if they see rain coming; almost all animals take evasive actions if they see predators. Doing that often involves modelling – figuring out what the predator might do, the path it might follow, where you’ll land if you make that jump with a particular force and direction. Nature has equipped us already with many inbuilt modelling skills. You think what the weather might do when you decide what to wear. You plan your food shopping according to what you have and what you think you will need. You think further ahead when you consider your investments, your retirement or what to encourage your kids to study at university. Some people become sufficiently skilled at thinking about what the future might bring that they can make a career from doing so, or perhaps do so part time as one role among many. If you find that possibility attractive, you already have the main attribute needed to be a futurologist: an interest in the future. There are several different roles that you can aim to fill, depending on your various talents. In this blog, I’ll briefly outline the field, the many different types and roles and the talents, knowledge and skills needed for them.

I’ll avoid jargon, and that’s also my first futures lesson. Jargon can be a useful shortcut when referring to commonly held concepts among colleagues, but if you’re explaining anything to anyone outside a field, you should be able to do so in ordinary everyday language. Jargon is field-specific (and can even be team-specific) so it gets in the way of communication if people don’t interpret that same jargon in exactly the same way as you. Worse, jargon acts to compartmentalize ideas and knowledge in your own mind, creating translation barriers between the compartments, and so impedes futures thinking, even if it slightly speeds up thinking in its specific field. If you can easily and seamlessly make links in your mind without having to step over those barriers, your thinking will be more fluid and you’ll quickly see things that most other people won’t. You’ll also find it far easier to do the sort of system-wide thinking essential to any useful futurology. I have nothing but contempt for those who use jargon or ‘big words’ as a way to feign expertise. Paraphrasing Einstein, “if you can’t explain it to the man in the street, you don’t understand it well enough yourself”. I’d add that it’s always better to convey big ideas with small words than small ideas with big words.

There are several main roles in the futures space:

Amateur futurologists are abundant, visible in very pub chat discussing who might win a football game, or what the budget might hold. We all engage in that amateur futurology frequently. A large number of people read interesting articles about the latest tech or science developments and tweet or blog about them, and that is all part of amateur futurology too. This is a great way to test the water – if you get bored after a while, it isn’t the right career for you; if it is a great source of enjoyment, perhaps you could take it further. Many progress directly from this start-point to professional futurologists and beyond (see the section below on futurologist speakers, writers, film-makers, bloggers, journalists).

Professional futurologists should go beyond this amateur level enthusiasm for the future, adding some real expertise and credibility. To be professional rather than amateur, by definition it needs to account for a significant source of their income. Many roles in business have some futurology in them. Pretty much everyone in strategy or planning, R&D, or even on the board needs to think about the future and what it may bring as a significant part of their job – forewarned is forearmed. Larger companies can often afford to have a few people who do that all the time. As a full time role, they develop a well-stocked mindset of what the future holds and can identify the many forces at play and how they may play out, and thus draw key insights (valuable enough to justify the cost of their role) that they can offer others in their company. They can help other departments to be prepared for what is coming.

Others such as designers, politicians, artists or writers may have large elements of futurology embedded in their jobs, even if it isn’t their title discipline.

Futurologists do not necessarily need expertise across a very broad area. Many futurologists are focused on deriving valuable insights within a relatively small field, such as the future of energy, or food, or fashion, or construction or some other field, and they don’t need to have any great activity outside that field. They are nevertheless valuable employees who can help ensure their companies make good strategic and planning decisions. Over time, futurologists will generally broaden their expertise to account for forces and events further afield, and become skilled in thinking further ahead may eventually become expert futurologists.

I think the main core skills needed for professional futurology are clear thinking and analytical skills, systems thinking, imagination, and also the ability to explain results to others who may not share you in depth industry knowledge. If you have those, you can produce insights about the future that are sufficiently useful to others to justify them paying you for it. But I’d also add discernment as a skill that makes a huge difference in the quality of build of the futures mindset, and the insights produced. Many people, sadly even some futurologists, can be taken in by things that others with better discernment skills might dismiss. The difference in outcome is between a reliable prediction of what the future will hold versus a more popular one that might push the right social media buttons but will not stand the test of time. Poor discernment skill doesn’t stop you from becoming a futurologist – you might still be able to produce material that grabs media exposure, but it is likely to be of low predictive value. Discernment skill makes the difference between getting it right occasionally and getting it right most of the time, between being limited to offering scenario planning and futures facilitation workshops, or being able to offer reliable predictions.

Many corporate futurologists start off in a fairly narrow field and broaden their scope gradually over time. I started futurology after a decade in systems engineering, so I had a lot of relevant expertise and experience, but it was confined to technology, mostly IT. Over a decade, I expanded that to cover the whole of IT, and then most other technology fields, including biotech, construction, materials, space, defense, transport, energy, and environment and then in the next decade on to food, beauty, cosmetics, sports and leisure, entertainment, medicine and even pharmaceuticals. Over those two decades, I also monitored a broad range of externals such as society, government, human nature, psychology, marketing, economics, incorporating them into my futures world view as appropriate. It really does take many years to incorporate all of those fields into a futures mindset that extends to 2050, but you can start small and grow.

Others take different routes. In fact, every field has a future to be analysed, and futurologists may come from any of them. My co-author Tracey came to futures through marketing and advertising communications, trying to analyse and model the changing values of the consumer, the changing lifestyles and match any emergent needs with emergent solutions. As with science fiction, media and communications offers a way to understand a changing society and that can often lead into a deeper interest in the specific area of futures. Each corporate futurologist has their own unique background and skills, and each will consequently look at the future with a different angle, drawing out different insights.

Expert Futurologists should have a broad, well-stocked mind view of what the future is likely to look like across a broad field over a broad timeframe. They will have a great deal of knowledge about that field, and a lot of insight into the key forces acting in it. They should be able to map the futures landscape in their field, highlighting the main features in it, the main threats and opportunities, and thus determining some plausible futures scenarios that might be worth investigating or preparing for. They should, on demand and relying entirely on their mindset, i.e. without having to google anything new, be able to outline and explain those key trends, forces and interactions, what is likely to happen and how that will affect the many stakeholders (government, people, business, society, the environment). They should know not just about current trends, but have enough insight in their field to predict likely new developments even where there are yet no trends, by pulling together insights from across the field to essentially invent things that do not yet exist but which are likely to arrive in due course. An expert futurologist should be able to make inventions within their field. To be worthy of the term expert, they should be able to factor in influences across their broad field and process those against other external forces built up of their own life experience, such as human nature, likely political or social reaction, market responses, and by doing so, an expert futurologist should most certainly be able to make not just plausible scenarios, but reliable predictions, determining not just the map of the future terrain, but the most likely path to be taken (or paths where there really are some genuinely unpredictable events or decisions, though that should be the exception, not the norm).

Skill-wise, the same skills mostly apply as for professional futurologist, but obviously significantly better developed, with a broader remit and longer time-frame. However, the best futurists are plugged into many different fields of interest and are good at spotting weak as well as strong signals. Especially if they start to notice a weak signal among people across different communities, they will gain a good sense of that trend as well as where it might be going. They don’t need to be expert across all those areas to notice signals in them, but it is certainly useful to at least have antennae facing numerous interesting and cross-disciplinary areas. 

The list of areas I cover is still growing but there are still enormous gaps in my knowledge, and that’s fine. I only have one brain, and it can only do so much, like anyone else’s. I know relatively little about global politics, the future of China or India or South America, or Indonesia, or Brazil…, I still don’t cover individual companies or brands, or law, or most regulation, and I could go on. There is a future for everything, but thankfully there are also many futurologists, and someone somewhere knows lots about those fields where I know nothing. That’s how it should be, but that does mean you also need to have futures contacts you respect who know about the other stuff.

Futures facilitators

Many companies engage in strategy or planning workshops, where they think about the future and its various threats and opportunities. There are many ways of doing so, but one of the most common is a scenario planning workshop, where a group identifies some potential ways the future might unfold, and how these might impact on them. Some go further and work out how they might influence the future to their own advantage. There are a variety of ways of running these workshops and various charts and tools that help guide participants through the processes – many readers will be familiar with two-axis charts dividing the future into four nice neat scenarios. The people who run such workshops are futures facilitators. Sometimes a senior manager or strategy consultant might take that role (not least because it can be a valuable team building event and can be excellent at getting personal commitment to a strategy) but really it is a straightforward administrative task that can easily be done by a junior manager or admin staff. That doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable. Futures facilitators can become skilled at running such workshops, developing interpersonal, motivational and leadership skills that help get the most out of the valuable time of the attendees, making sure everyone gets a chance to talk, that loudmouths don’t monopolize the whole time, that ideas aren’t immediately dismissed and creativity squashed before they can be explored further. Some offer very valuable personal skills, but facilitators don’t need (although they might have all the same) any particular futures knowledge themselves, and they don’t even need (though again, might have) any interest in the futures discussion. The key expertise at the workshop lies in the attendees, who should be chosen carefully. They provide the knowledge, the analytical skills, the insights and often the managerial clout to implement what needs done as a result. The role of the facilitator is to guide them through the process of extracting and harnessing their expertise.

Some facilitators may also be professional futurologists in their own right; indeed many are, and as well as helping attendees to think about their future, they might add their own futures knowledge and insights to help them do their analysis. As with many jobs, being a futurologist is often one part time role the employee fills among several. But facilitating discussion, helping or guiding others to think about the future is facilitation, not futurology per se. A skilled individual can and sometimes does fill both roles, but there is no value in conflating them.

This is an important distinction that needs to be stressed because it aligns well with the chasm between academia and industry. I often see it written by academics in the futures field that “one of the myths about futurologists is that they predict the future”, often going on to explain that “nobody can predict the future”, that “the future isn’t predictable”. That’s simply nonsense. Many people, in industry at least, can and do predict the future reliably. Their company may depend on them doing so. Their job may depend on them doing so. I made thousands of predictions of the future for my employer and its customers over 17 years, scoring over 85% accuracy ten years ahead (yes, I counted, and that is an honest figure, not some exaggerated sales claim). 85% isn’t perfect by any means but it is still very valuable. So, why do people make these comments that futurists don’t predict the future? Is it just ‘Those that can do. Those that can’t, teach. Those that can’t teach administrate?’ Perhaps.

When you look at what they do, the services they offer are mostly teaching and futures facilitation. As I explained, a facilitator runs a workshop, and tells attendees what they’re doing next and guides the general process of thinking about the future, e.g. making scenarios and thinking them through. The primary knowledge, thinking, predicting and insight lies with the workshop attendees. Futurologists worthy of the title offer either prediction skills or insights about what is driving the future, i.e. what will drive the various options you might have to deal with. They should really be able to do both. If you are neither offering the attendees key insights nor making useful predictions, you are not acting as a futurologist but as a facilitator, typically a junior manager of administrator role. If you can’t make grounded predictions or at least offer genuine useful insight about what, where, who, when, or why the future will do x, y or z, you are not a ‘futurologist’ or futurist, whatever other roles you can reasonably claim. Please don’t say futurologists can’t predict the future. I’ve been a professional futurologist for 30 years, making thousands of reliable predictions. Maybe you can’t, but I certainly can, and so can many others. It really is nonsense to say otherwise.

Futures Teachers

A growing number of institutions offer courses that teach about the future, the skills and tools that are useful in studying it or using the outcomes, and even some of the basic knowledge about the various factors that will influence the future. Many other futures courses have come and gone. It is certainly useful to teach students what the future is likely to hold in broad terms, an assortment of useful futures skills, and also to teach them discernment and research skills so that they can build and maintain their own mindsets, as well as thinking skills, especially those that help them to think in whole systems terms, and teaching some basic work-shopping techniques etc. Futures teachers who teach such things may also be established futurologists in their own right.

Many futurologists take such courses, but many others develop their futures knowledge, thinking and analytical skills via on-the-job learning. I’d argue that both are valuable. If the desired role is to be a futures facilitator, or futures teacher, a futures course might suffice in itself (though basic facilitation skills can be learned in an hour or two). Being a professional futurologist requires serious in-depth knowledge of a field so a futures course can be a good springboard, but is really only valuable if accompanied by real experience in a field. By contrast, in-depth real-life experience is a good teacher in itself, since most futurology comes down to clear thinking, system-wide and sector-specific knowledge, and mature experience of everyday life, while many futures techniques are also widely embedded in many fields (modelling, trend analysis, data and stats know-how, basic planning and strategy techniques for example). Industry knowledge and skills can take many years to master, and futures techniques applied without that skill-set might be low value, so ideally, futurologists would have several years of real-life experience working in their chosen field as well as experience of using assorted futures techniques, which may be learned either from courses or on-job. Many corporate futurologists (like the authors) came that route. Teaching works both ways too. I’ve been involved in futures courses both in course development and teaching, and I’ve had enough exposure to various content and tools to know what works in practice and what doesn’t. As with any area, there is good and bad teaching, and good and bad techniques, so discernment is an important skill here too.

Futures speakers, writers, film makers, bloggers, journalists

Many futurologists give talks at conferences or workshops, or appear on TV and radio. It’s to be expected. The products of futurology are both interesting and useful, a rich source of food for thought, strategic input or even entertainment. Some excellent futurology has come from science fiction writers. H G Wells, Aldous Huxley, Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov, George Orwell and even Terry Pratchett and many others too many to list have given us rich visions about what the future might hold, and often their visions have been well thought through, so are self-consistent and plausible within their own frames, even if some of the sci-fi technology would never work for real. Futurology requires some of the same skills needed to write good sci-fi, so it’s not surprising. Sci-fi also has a rich two-way interaction with technology fact, and writers may be good scientists or engineers as well as writers. Futures writing often becomes film-making too (or TV series such as Black Mirror), so this part of the futures industry is one of its most glamorous lucrative sectors. In more mundane use, futures writing also costs in in PR and marketing, where it can grab abundant media coverage and clicks for a campaign by adding interesting materials about the future, however tangentially related to that campaign it might be.

Many futurists have blogs or video channels. Some interview researchers or receive press releases about future products and write about them. If they add insight on the likely impacts of these things, or predict what future versions might bring, then they are properly fulfilling the requirements of being a professional or expert futurologist in their own right. I have come across some excellent futurologists in this space, who make great interviewers because they have thought the issues through themselves so know the most interesting areas to focus on and ask about, where to challenge and where to let flow. I guess the key difference here is between an amateur futurologist who just reports things, and the professional journalist futurologist who thinks about the implications and adds insight.

Futurologists may often be asked to speak at conferences, with a wide mix of briefs that range from entertainment, opening people’s minds with stimulating ideas, outlining threats and opportunities, providing thought leadership, and sometimes are there to give complacent employees a much-needed kick in the pants.

Trend watchers

Many futurologists specialize in spotting existing trends and extrapolating them for a few years. Some call themselves trend spotters, trend trackers, trend analysts; some call themselves data scientists and some of them might even laugh at titles like futurist or futurologist, and that’s fine – a rose by any other name smells as sweet – they are still part of the futures family. Data science is a broad field in itself, often with a highly specific insight as the goal. Extrapolation is only useful for existing trends and usually only works for short term, but it is still highly valuable within those constraints. Data analysis tools, especially latest AI tools, can also produce insights on trends that are not easily noticed. Many other techniques are important here too, such as watching M&A activity, interviewing key people in industry or regulation, watching what people are talking about on social media. So trend spotting or analysis is a very different field from longer term futurology in terms of skillset, but every bit as valuable. This trend spotting and tracking often results in very pricey reports that are eagerly bought by companies wanting to develop particular markets or products. It saves those companies doing the work themselves and can help reduce risk enormously. Other companies do their own analysis internally, often at great expense, to extract the valuable insights that feed into their short-term planning. So although this is a very different field, looking at the short-term future with very different skills from the longer term futurology that I do, it is still certainly futurology and very important part of the field.

Futures Activists

Some groups even call themselves futures activists, but that term grates harshly against the core futurology skill of clear thinking. Obviously, people who are professional futurologists or even expert futurologists can also be activists in any field they choose. In fact, most of us are also engaged in various hobbies, special interest or political activities, but futurology is to do with mapping the future landscape, highlighting the important features and predicting the paths most likely to be followed. Activism seeks to force society down paths favored by the activist, quite separate and quite different. Lobbying, campaigning, distributing propaganda, demonstrating, or using social media to pressurize or attack or silence people are all the stuff of everyday 2021 politics, but activism is nothing to do with futurology per se. To be clear, futurologists may also simultaneously be parents, environmentalists, democrats or conservatives, gardeners, and activists in any number of areas, but those other things are not futurology and there is no value in conflating roles. As for activist groups who differentiate by race, futurologists should be judged by the quality of their insight or the accuracy of their predictions, not by the color of their skin.

Also into this activism role should be placed the frequent conflation of aspiration and prediction. Mapping out the field of potential futures is futurology; aspiration may be interpreted as looking at the futures landscape and picking and planning the path you wish to take, which may or may not involve also applying some futurology, but aspiration itself is neither a skill nor a useful qualifier, since everyone has aspirations. Again, the two activities are really quite distinct and there is no value in conflation. There is nothing wrong with working with organisations or clients to identify and steer towards a preferred future, but one has to more objectively investigate what the possible or probable default futures might be first.

So, there are numerous distinct roles in the futures industry, and it’s commonplace to blend them with other roles or with each other. The field is very rich in enjoyable, challenging and rewarding activity, and we would recommend it as a career.

Tracey is a futurist and author of The Future of You: Can Your Identity Survive 21st-Century Technology? She is the founder CEO of Futuremade, a futures consultancy advising global brands and specialising in the application of foresight to boost business. She helps clients spot trends, develop foresight and fully prepare for what comes next. A regular keynote speaker all around the world she has covered topics as diverse as the future of luxury, retail, media, cities, gender, work, defense, justice, entertainment, and AI ethics, decoding the future for businesses, brands and organisations. She is a member of the Association of Professional Futurists and World Futures Studies Federation, and a Fellow of the RSA. 

Dr Pearson has been a futurologist for 30 years, tracking and predicting developments across a wide range of technology, business, society, politics and the environment. Graduated in Maths and Physics and a Doctor of Science. Worked in numerous branches of engineering from aeronautics to cybernetics, sustainable transport to electronic cosmetics. 1900+ inventions including text messaging and the active contact lens, more recently a number of inventions in transport technology, including driverless transport and space travel. BT’s full-time futurologist from 1991 to 2007 and now runs Futurizon, a small futures institute. Writes, lectures and consults globally on all aspects of the technology-driven future. Eight books and over 850 TV and radio appearances. Chartered Member of the British Computer Society and a Fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science.

Brain refresh mechanism

I just read the transcript of an excellent podcast by Brian Roemmele and Jim O’Shaughnessy covering the intelligence amplifier and other ideas.

https://www.infiniteloopspodcast.com/brian-roemmele-the-intelligence-amplifier-ep29/#transcript

Engineering is rather like walking along a pebble beach with a friend. You’ll both experience broadly the same beach and will generally agree on the big picture stuff, but you’ll notice different pebbles. So it is with the field of connecting IT with our bodies and minds. Many engineers have worked in the field and in spite of a lot of overlap, there are enough differences in background, skillset, perception and approach that we’ll often come up with alternative ideas and insights, and even different solutions to the same problems.

In this case, it was clear we’ve both explored the issue of our brain forgetting information and experiences, and although forgetting can be highly useful tool in creativity, it can also severely limit our ability to think. If you could recall every book, every lecture, every idea, how much better might you be able to think through a new idea? I found a short article I wrote 30 years ago on this very problem. Most of it would still be valid now, and it doesn’t even contravene Roemele’s consciousness bandwidth limit. Here it is:

Brain refresh mechanism, April 1991

The Macintosh has a desktop rebuild facility, which restores links between applications and documents. Norton utilities on the Mac have a further facility for repairing directories so that lost information can be found.

Adding these facilities, and working out the brain equivalent, this would perhaps be the same as restoring all one’s memories and skills, since all previous links in the brain would be restored. This sounds very sci-fi but there may be a way of doing this. It requires some modest advances in technology and maybe biology and psychology too but doesn’t everything?

It is well known that electrical stimulation on certain parts of the brain will stimulate memory recall, and this can be so accurate as to be the equivalent of re-living an experience. When this happens, the brain then restores those links in memory which had been lost and the person will remember this experience afresh (and probably eventually forget it in the same way). It is conceivable (but not certain) that if many points could be stimulated that large areas of memory could be rebuilt.

Obviously, it would not be desirable to carry out an operation to do this so it would need to be done remotely. Suppose that a safe (but electromagnetically responsive) fluid could be injected into the blood-stream. Suppose then that an electromagnetic field could be created at any desired point so that a localised high intensity was to result (this technique is already well established in radio-therapy). With the right choice of fluid, this could possibly result in sufficient stimulation to achieve the same effect as direct electrical stimulation. Since the electromagnetic field could be steered, presumably a complete brain refresh could eventually be achieved, with great enhancement in knowledge and skill.

Given the appropriate advances in CAT techniques and the discovery of suitable fluids, the rest is down to experimentation.

It is possible, although more unlikely and certainly further future, that information could be directly stored in the brain using this technique, accelerating learning and directly conveying information. By then, other more direct brain interfaces may have been developed, for transactions in either direction.

Possibly a silly idea.

Ancestor Zero

I’ve been reading Tracey Follows’ excellent new book ‘The Future of You’, about identity. (https://www.waterstones.com/book/the-future-of-you/tracey-follows/9781783965458)

I haven’t finished it yet, but it made me re-visit my thinking about future brain links and electronic immortality. My previous thinking has mostly revolved around having tiny inserts in the brain that signal to and from external IT hardware that effectively acts as a brain extension. My work on machine consciousness looked biokleptically at brain architecture for inspiration on how we might achieve it, and in doing so, made me realise that the timing of signals is very important, and for consciousness to have evolved, early conscious organism brains would likely have architectures that allow neural feedback loops with sensing and processing time of the same order as the time for signals to travel around the loop. This remains likely in modern brains in sensory and conscious areas at least (some parts of the brain would not need such architecture. Without such feedback in sensory systems, the internal sensing of sensing that I assume to be the basis of consciousness wouldn’t work. It’s worth noting that such neural network architecture has no need at all for the feed-forward/back propagation used in training digital neural nets and I think it would make a much better solution. Here’s the link if you want to read it:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2018/06/04/biomimetic-insights-for-machine-consciousness/

More recently, when I was updating my thinking on gel computing, I realised that potential processing speed of the suspended processing particles would be high enough to run many parallel machines in the same gel, and that would solve this machine consciousness problem while also allowing many minds (or instances of the same mind) to share the same gel if it is used to build brain extension/electronic immortality IT. I called it Turing Multiplexing. Again for quick reference, here is a link:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2018/12/27/future-ai-turing-multiplexing-air-gels-hyper-neural-nets/

These are just a few of the many trees currently not being barked up in the vast forest that is potential AI/brain link/immortality technology. I am increasingly frustrated that the rapidly growing army of AI researchers seems so determined to all focus on the same corner with the same old trees carrying the same bland fruit, ignoring the much richer, much more diverse parts of the forest with the far tastier, more exciting fruit, over-ripe, falling and wasting on the forest floor because nobody can be bothered to pick it.

However, I missed two tricks myself, unforgivably since I’ve walked right past it many times. In order to make a brain link, tiny IT devices need to be inserted into the brain to connect with each neuron and synapse. Musk’s team call their threads of connections neural lace, but really, we need tinier devices that are wireless. Few people would want to suffer an operation to have wires inserted that can only possibly connect to a tiny proportion of the brain. Devices that are sufficiently small could be injected and float through the brain, anchoring to places they are needed. Simple self-organisation tech is all that is needed to map the architecture and create an external brain extension. The first trick I missed is that instead of merely signalling activity between internal and external kit, these devices could be diverse, with some doing sensing, some storage, some signalling, some processing, some chemical activator roles (such as reacting to or fabricating hormones or neurotransmitters). In my blog on ground-up intelligence, I show how these can automatically link together to create local intelligence that can be broadcast where appropriate, or used locally where it isn’t. Link:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/10/16/ground-up-data-is-the-next-big-data/

This solution could work inside the brain just as effectively as a city centre.

The second trick is more fun. Applying the idea of Turing Multiplexing to these diverse IT particles, and leaving them in situ in the brain among the neurons and synapses, they can add multi-parallel intelligence, memory and sensory capability without any need at all for external links. They don’t need the server farm, the cloud. In fact, it would be more like an inverse cloud, with cloud-like functionality running in local space, with local ground-up intelligence creating a fractal cloud architecture. You could upgrade your brain by large factors without any external IT at all. Some nice functionality falls out right away:

You could speed up the links between different parts of your brain

Local processing can be done in the synthetic IT at highly accelerated speed and then signaled to local brain wetware, giving higher thinking and reaction speed without compromising natural capability or sensation

Turing Multiplexing of the synthetic IT allows many minds to share the same brain.

Instead of the high latency inevitable in using a cloud architecture, a hive mind could share exactly the same physical space, and since each mind would use neurons in the same region, this would give almost zero latency, greatly speeding up hive thinking, thought sharing, and telepathy.

Body-sharing is easily implemented, allowing much closer relationships. See:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2017/02/21/future-sex-gender-and-relationships-how-close-can-you-get/

Having the IT resident rather than in the cloud means that privacy, security and ownership issues can be sidestepped. Full control and ownership by the host can be assured (subject to terms of purchase of course)

Electronic immortality is built in. At any point, even after death, the full-spectrum information contents of the entire brain can be read, copied, backed up, duplicated or transferred. Some, such as electrical activity or chemical information, e.g. the state of hormones or neurotransmitters would degrade quickly, while other information such as memory would remain until the biological brain material degrades. But since brain death could be detected, all relevant information can be captured at that moment before it degrades, allowing much longer period for transfer. Nothing needs to be done during life, so it wouldn’t interfere with normal living.

Copying this information to another person’s brain would be easy if they too are equipped with compatible IT. Their Turing Multiplexing would support the deceased person as just another entity running on the same synthetic IT.

A mind could therefore be inherited much as easily as a photo album, and just like a photo album, copied to as many people as desired. Or it could just be left as an electronic copy on a server somewhere in case some future person wanted it. Or transferred to an android body so that the deceased can carry on electronically living. So the same tech that conveys the electronic immortality also allows minds to be shared (though that is also feasible with other electronic immortality tech).

What is really interesting though is that this allows people to have a high quality link to their ancestors. Many traditions have a special place for ancestors. They form a strong part of tribal identity. This technology would allow a full implementation of an ancestor’s mind in another brain, passed down between generations. They would not be some tribal story passed down by words or videos, but would be actual minds carrying on in a living biological body, most likely of one of their descendants. Tribal ancestry would become real in ways never possible before. This obviously needs the technology to have been present when those ancestors were alive.

So there needs to be a first generation. Ancestor Zero! If this technology becomes feasible later this century, as it should, then some alive today will be among the Ancestor Zero generation.

This idea is not new, only this particular technology implementation is new. For millennia, people have had shamans or mystics presumed to have a special connection to their ancestors, to have inherited special knowledge or talents, sometimes via elaborate rituals of inheritance. More recently, computer games such as Mass Effect Andromeda have built on the idea of some sort of IT that monitors the body and mind and can pass on parts of a mind via an AI assistant (SAM in this case).

However, even in the case of computer games, such inheritance is associated with special powers, unique to special individuals . It could become much more commonplace than that. Almost everyone could have such technology. What will we do with it? Will people inherit their parents’ minds, and those of their earlier ancestors? Will government want to control it? Will people need licenses to have their minds carry on in someone else’s body after their death? Will there be requirements for government monitors or supervisors to run in that Turing Multiplex? How would tribal traditions be implemented? Would only certain people have privileges to run certain ancestors or would anyone be able to download anybody?

As always with any interesting development, far more questions are raised than are answered. But it’s fun.

The future in 2004

I was searching for a slide (didn’t find it) and stumbled across my 2004 presentation to the World Future Society conference, about AI, machine consciousness and human-machine convergence. It’s quite depressing how much the IT world has underachieved compared to our expectations back then, based on the current state of thinking and rate of progress back then. You can speculate yourself on the reasons for that, but we are where we are, and we should be much further on. Anyway, you may find some of the slides interesting because some of the concepts are still waiting.

Should the IT Industry now be formally represented as the 4th branch of US Government?

Joint blog with Bronwyn Williams

We’ve known for many years about the importance of the IT industry, and in particular its social media arm, in facilitating political campaigning. A few years ago, big data and AI also became prominent political forces. Now, server farms, cloud services and everyday app provision have also entered politics. There is nothing wrong with providing powerful platforms to facilitate politics; the point here is that they are powerful but remain under the control of big IT, not government. These technologies are developing rapidly, and will become more and more important forces in politics, governance, as well as in every field of control and provision of essential services and information. Cash is well on the way to being exclusively digital, phones track us and every aspect of our lives and even smart watches now play roles in medical insurance and services.

The last two elections have shown that IT vulnerabilities are often perceived as almost as important, potentially allowing malign overseas agents to influence opinions via social media or even to directly control or attack electoral software or machines. It makes no difference whether particular instances of corruption or fraud did or didn’t happen – that’s for historians to debate – what matters is that they could have and could in the future.

In this election, we have learned the enormous potential for such malign influences and even more so the enormous power exercised by big IT. We’re well used to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram censoring opinions they don’t like, now censoring all the way through the social media influencer ranks right up to the President, but we have this week seen Google, Apple, Amazon and Stripe acting in synch, as an oligarchy, flexing their muscles to remove entire business – including web hosting and payment processing – from their platforms, effectively denying those businesses the ability to operate. Censoring or removing individuals from posting on social media platforms is one thing (and could reasonably be understood within the frame of general freedom of association). A coordinated attack to deny a third party business the ability to trade is quite another. Such an ability goes beyond a businesses risk towards being a matter of national security – imagine, for example, the digital oligarchy described above joined forces to hold a government service or department (perhaps a national health service) reliant on consumer-facing cloud based third party platforms and services hostage?  

With IT hardware, comms, AI, cloud services, software, apps, social media, audio and video media, gaming, advertising, and extensive control over the retail and distribution industries, big IT now wields so much power over US life and politics that it could be considered a fourth branch of governance, alongside POTUS, Congress and SCOTUS. 

This has happened gradually over many years, and although most aspects of it were predicted well in advance, it is abundantly clear that politics was not and is not ready for it.

We have a conundrum. Freedom of speech, freedom of association and the right to refuse service are all key components of a free and fair society. But what happens when those freedoms come into conflict? Complex messy problems require clever solutions to ensure the cure is not worse than the disease. Simply handing power over digital communication networks and access from powerful private entities to government regulators only further centralises the risk of censorship and propaganda. As recent years have shown, politicians are not infallible, or altruistic. As with all systems, agents will act according to the incentives presented to them to maximise their own power and further their own agenda’s – be that profits, votes or popularity

One suggestion that might offer a middle way out of our Catch22, is to implement a new formal independent agency, representing big IT, let’s call it ITOTUS. It should be a body that includes key members of the main facets of the broad IT industry. It should, like SCOTUS, be staffed by people very expert in their field, and like SCOTUS, theoretically impartial (easier said than done, yes, but theoretically possible) . Its primary purpose should be to ensure a democratic level playing field that provides sound IT hardware and services to the US population without fear or favor, that is protected against political bias, corruption or malign foreign interests. As well as ensuring and guarding security and privacy and access to digital utilities (such as the ability to host a functional website or app and receive digital payments), it might also be the natural body to implement such upcoming fields as AI ethics, robot rights, human-machine convergence.

“one ought to design systems under the assumption that the enemy will immediately gain full familiarity with them” ~ Shannon’s maxim


ITOTUS is already needed, it is just late. The incoming administration will find an IT industry much aligned with its own politics, for now, but they will also soon realise that such alignment will not last for long, and this new body will very soon not only be desirable, but unavoidable.

Whatever path we choose, as citizens or states, we have to do so on the understanding that if not tomorrow (or on the 21st of January) then eventually, the system we design, the rules we choose, and the institutions we establish – be they public or private – will find themselves controlled by our ideological opponents. This is why it makes sense to advocate for an institution with a degree of autonomy from state, church (popular ideology) and business, to guard and tame the leviathan we have unleashed upon ourselves. 
A further question, perhaps, should be whether this oversight capacity should be national or international? After all, the same issues of domestic freedom of speech and trade are only magnified at an inter-state level. A fractured, nationalised global internet is no better for humanity than a fractured bi-parisan domestic internet.

Guest Author bio:

Bronwyn Williams is a futurist, economist and trend analyst.  

Her day job as a partner at Flux Trends involves helping business leaders to use foresight to  design the future they want to live and work in.  

You may have seen her talking about Transhumanism or Tikok on Carte Blanche,; or heard her  talking about trends on 702 or CNBC Africa where she is a regular expert commentator. When  she’s not talking to brands and businesses about the future, you will probably find her curled up  somewhere with a (preferably paperback) book.  

whatthefuturenow.com 

fluxtrends.com 

@bronwynwilliams  

A new voyage of discovery

Well, it’s 30 years since I became a full-time futurologist. I am now pretty much retired, just doing occasional minor consultancy, but I am rediscovering my artistic leanings and experimenting. I have little talent or skill so my expectations are low but that means my personal threshold for amusement and delight is also low. With no need to sell anything, I will just do what I like and enjoy it.

As for futures, well, my brain isn’t dead. It is deeply frustrating watching society and government right across the West squander the enormous techno-social opportunities they have been given, so often choosing the paths into disease-riddled bogs and snake-infest deserts instead of the ones to the beautiful peaceful gardens. My blogs and books have called the fantastic opportunities and warned of the risks ahead but I take less joy doing so as our leaders insist in taking our countries down the wrong paths, so although I will continue to analyse and predict, I will document far fewer of my future insights.

I fear for our children. They will not inherit the world they should have.

Multidimensional government incompetence needs to end

I haven’t written a COVID blog for several months. Some of what government is attempting now half-heartedly and badly echoes some of the advice of my blogs back in March and April, so my disapproval of some of their policies is not on the what but the when and how. Wiser government offering good leadership, backed up by a moderately competent public sector, would have got through with a tiny fraction of the deaths and economic destruction. It may well be the case now that public trust and cooperation have been squandered, leaving fear and coercion as the only still-working tools. The vaccines will help of course, but slow delivery and ongoing public sector incompetence will mean more unnecessary deaths for at least another year. Tens of thousands are dead from COVID who shouldn’t be, as well as perhaps well over 100,000 more who will die from other illnesses due to lack of timely diagnosis and treatment. We, our children and our grandchildren will pay heavily in lingering economic, social, political and cultural damage. It shouldn’t have been like this, it really shouldn’t. That a few other countries have performed almost as badly is little consolation.

Tempting though it is, I won’t present a forensic analysis of past errors. They can’t be undone so there is little point. However, government can still improve on vaccine roll-out.

Firstly, while it was essential to make sure that vaccines were developed quickly, I do not believe it a good idea to guarantee the developers freedom from litigation in the case of bad reactions, not to try to block any debate on the potential downsides of vaccination. Vaccination is one of the most valuable scientific contributions of all time, but trust in its safety and efficacy and hence support for rolling it out depend strongly on the freedom to discuss both sides and weigh them against each other.

Secondly, many retired health care workers who have offered to assist in a speedy vaccination programme are currently being blocked by irrelevant administrative requirements. While there may be debatable value in having some health workers undertaking diversity training or training in guarding against radicalization, it is hard to see why not having undertaken such training should prevent someone from safely vaccinating someone. Barriers such as these need to be removed immediately, since every day lost means lives lost needlessly. Worse, the existence of such barriers is strong evidence of the unsuitability of key administrators to the vaccination programme They should be replaced, quickly. With an estimated quarter of infections happening in hospitals, (as well as the many infected in care homes due to administrators forcing out elderly patients into homes without proper checking) there should be more focus on training staff how not to spread infections. It is surely more important that your nurse doesn’t give you COVID than whether they use an incorrect pronoun or may not be fully aware of some discrimination you may once have been exposed to.

Thirdly, government shows an ongoing fondness for authoritarianism that will leave socio-political damage that will last many years. Social relationships have suffered as people overly fond of rules have become informers. Many important freedoms we used to take for granted will in future depend on the whim of ministers in charge, greatly undermining the consent foundations of democracy. Good leadership would rely instead on strong use of education and skillful soliciting of cooperation. If people were made well aware of the very basics of relevant science – how viruses spread, and how that is likely to be affected by different types of behaviours, or different types of masks – and persuaded to follow well-designed protocols, that would have, and could still, reduce infection rates enormously. Instead, government scientists have fully reversed their position on masks and tried to enforce quite arbitrary and often illogical restrictions, making some areas watertight while opening or ignoring gaping holes. That guarantees maximum inconvenience, social distress and economic damage, while reaping minimal benefit, as evidenced by the remarkable lack of correlation between lockdowns and infection rates.

Fourthly, the NHS has been subjected to worship where admonishment was due. It was clearly not fit for purpose, hopelessly unprepared to deal with a pandemic that everyone knew would one day arrive. Almost a year on, it has almost become a single disease service. Having commissioned the Nightingale Hospitals, and given that most existing hospitals have numerous separate buildings, would it be so difficult to arrange for COVID patients to be treated and still treat other ailments in separate buildings, with separate staff? With so many highly paid administration staff, you might reasonably expect they’d have solved that by now. Many people will die from heart disease, cancer, diabetes or some other disease because they were not seen or treated until too late. Many of us have already lost loved ones due to this problem. It must be fixed.

Fifthly, and I’ll make this the last one for now because I’m reaching my boredom threshold, government needs to stop the enormous economic damage it is causing. Forcing lots of businesses to close forever while allowing infections to spread rapidly by other means is not good management. Killing so many small businesses by refusing them financial support while supporting others will not incentivise those business risk-takers to take future risks. Many business people have had to live on their life savings, while watching others being totally or partially insulated from adverse financial effects. Gratuitously harming entrepreneurial activity over such large swathes of the economy will slow both economic and cultural recovery.

I wrote recently about ongoing harmful effects of poor environmental policy, following green dogma instead of proper system-wide, full life-cycle thinking, so it is not only in COVID that government falls short. Defence of freedom of speech instead of political correctness, pursuit of true equality instead of surrendering to tribal demands and perhaps most of all firming up the foundations of freedom and democracy instead of dismantling them are other dimensions where government needs to perform better. In short, it is too late to undo the damage of the many errors of the past, but not yet too late to stop serious ongoing damage.

Green government is still harming the environment

I wrote an entire book on this topic (Total Sustainability) in 2013 but it’s always a good idea to refresh thinking and things have moved on since then anyway. Like almost everyone, I want to protect and help the environment. However, there has always been a wide chasm between good environmental stewardship and what people call ‘green’, which although claiming to want the same thing, actually has halo polishing, feeling good and virtue signalling at its top priorities. I have no time for greens or their policies at all. Most are thinly veiled socialism, but since the poor are most often the main victims, they don’t even accomplish that well. Green is actually just another word for stupid.

When ‘green’ policies are implemented, the environment is usually harmed. Even if the intention is to help the environment, poor depth, scope and quality of thinking mean that many effects of the policies are missed (or blatantly ignored because of other political objectives). These are then labelled ‘unforeseen consequences’ even though almost everyone else saw them right away.

My book was full of examples, but current UK government is providing many fresh ones. The biggest is the set of policies supposedly intended to reduce CO2 emissions. I’m not a believer in catastrophic human-induced climate change but CO2 is a greenhouse gas so it’s sensible to make sure emission levels don’t become problematic. So the issue here isn’t whether government should or shouldn’t be concerned about CO2 but whether their policies are sensible. They aren’t, and are actually worse than not doing anything at all.

Let’s look at the likely default future if government had never even heard of CO2 and just stayed completely out of the way of normal market forces:

With only existing market forces incentivising R&D, by around 2030, solar power in the Sahara or Mediterranean coast would cost around $30 for the energy equivalent of a barrel of oil (approx 6GJ). Some time in the 2030s or 2040s, fusion power will come on stream at relatively low commercial cost. By 2050, the vast bulk of our energy, driven only by default market forces, would come from nuclear fusion or photovolatic solar. Hardly anybody would still be using oil or gas (even shale gas) by then, because it would simply cost too much. In some areas, hydro or hydro-thermal sources would play a significant role too. There would be a little wind energy production, but not much, since it would find it hard to compete on cost without the market being distorted by government. There would be even less from tidal energy.

At some point, home heating would switch over to electricity, which started off perhaps 50% more expensive than gas per unit. Over time, electricity would fall in cost relative to gas until gas boilers fell out of favour and cheap electricity would be both abundant and convenient. Energy poverty would disappear into history, as very cheap electricity would be available to all.

As heat pump technology developed in parallel, they may well become very economically competitive during much of the period between 2020 and 2050, so that some homes would use heat pumps for heating, powered by cheap electricity.

Meanwhile, electric cars would be slowly developing. Self-driving technology too, and all the associated IT and infrastructure. Eventually, in the 2030s, highly responsive driverless pod systems would start replacing public transport, socially inclusive and cheap to run. It is possible to power driverless pod systems using induction circuits in the road surface, or even to use linear induction moors to propel and navigate them, dispensing with the need for expensive AI, sensors, batteries and motors.

In such a situation, most people wouldn’t bother buying their own cars, choosing to rely instead on cheap public pods, pocketing the huge outlay previously spent on cars. There would be less need for car parks, private driveways and garages, less congestion, fewer accidents, and a far lower environmental footprint. Each pod would effectively be shared by many people, replacing the private cars typically shared by one or two people. Many people would convert their garages into extra living space, and new build homes wouldn’t need driveways, so that could mean larger gardens, bigger homes, or less countryside taken by housing.

This near-utopian market-driven future, that requires no government intervention whatsoever, is barely conceivable compared to the future we’re being brainwashed to expect. It would be extremely cheap, highly socially inclusive, with extremely low environmental impact – low resource use per capita and barely any CO2 emissions. The environment would be in far better shape, and our personal wealth would be similarly improved.

Now let’s look at what green government is doing instead, starting from the same 1990s point where electricity was around 50% more expensive per unit than gas. Government policy giving in to pressure from green groups has resulted in gradual phasing out of new-build nuclear power stations, shutting oil and coal power stations, converting others to wood pellets and putting some gas power stations on part time use, installing some bio-fuel generators and regulating that 3% of car fuel had to be replaced by bio-fuel, while large numbers of wind turbines and solar panels have been installed, greatly subsidised at enormous expense to energy consumers. Instead of being 50% more expensive, electricity is now around six times more expensive than gas.

Other green schemes have offered high levels of subsidy to encourage installation of insulation, smart meters and more recently, heat pumps. Ultimately the cost of these is all passed on to taxpayers and consumers. However, much as car repairs generally cost far more when paid for indirectly via insurance than when paid privately, availability of generous subsidies has resulted in very high prices and profits for the suppliers, rather than encouraging a positive R&D spiral towards low cost, high efficiency solutions. With government handing out many of the big contracts, corruption and well-connected but inefficient companies thrive, while other companies with excellent products but poor contacts may not. A highly distorted market where government picks winners instead of market forces guarantees slower development, higher prices and lower environmental benefits. Some people with the right friends have grown very rich at the expense of increased energy poverty for the rest. In the haste to approve anything that might improve the government’s green credentials, many a grand scheme has proceeded in spite of poor economics or environmental benefit.

Heat pumps can provide around 6 times more heat than the electricity put in, but if that electricity costs 6 times more than the gas alternative, there is no overall even on running costs, yet the extraordinarily (and artificially) high installation costs remain. The green incentives that collectively drove the higher costs of both the heat pumps and the electricity have thus resulted in no net financial incentive to switch from gas to electricity, and government is now being forced to regulate against future gas boiler installations.

Meanwhile, the EU requirement to have 3% of vehicle fuel as biofuel provided irresistible incentives for companies to burn down rain forests and forceably displace people who lived in them in order to plant palm oil plantations. Great environmental devastation across much of Borneo, Indonesia and many other countries has resulted, with many poor people suffering enormously.

The very generous subsidising of wind turbines has resulted, as well as huge stress for people and animals living near them, and the deaths of very many birds and bats, in enormous areas of peat bogs being drained, either directly, or as an ‘unforeseen consequence’ of installing roads for their installation and maintenance. Much of the dried out peat has biodegraded, resulting in enormous CO2 emissions. Similarly, subsidising solar panels on rooftops has resulted in wealthy homeowners getting a little richer at the expense of poorer households who have to pay higher energy prices to pay for them. Not only that, it has meant that those panels have been installed on homes in a country which isn’t actually very sunny. The same panel, had it been installed in Africa, would have produced far more much needed energy, saved far more CO2 emissions, and avoided a great deal of the wood-burning that otherwise creates particulates that present a known and serious direct health threat, as well as another direct source of global warming.

I won’t go on, though there are many other impacts that could be listed.

The result of government interfering (very incompetently) has been an enormous rise in the cost of electricity, increased energy poverty, and still increased environmental impact. Heat pumps are nowhere near as cheap or efficient a solution as they should be, and electric heating is now ridiculously expensive. The intermittent nature of wind energy means highly uneconomic use of remaining gas power stations, and lingering demand to reduce CO2 is now encouraging a move back towards expensive nuclear fission stations to fill the gap until fusion comes along.

Even the transport migration to all-electric is jeopardised by the still increasing price of electricity. On latest figures, recharging an electric car battery on a journey can be as expensive as petrol or diesel alternative, but future green subsidies will substantially increase the electricity price.

The only solution to government-induced energy poverty that government offers is enforced installation of smart meters, so that people can see just how much they are having to spend, so may switch off a light now and then. Even here, incompetence reigns. Smart meters are actually a great idea if used wisely. But recent announcements on future smart meters say that energy companies will be able to switch off supply to balance load when the wind doesn’t blow strongly enough. Well, that will certainly encourage people to get them.

With green government declaring itself as a friend, the Earth certainly doesn’t need any enemies.