Daily Archives: December 12, 2011

Cellular automata, social jewellery, and the X Factor

I confess that I was among many who watched the x factor final last night. I know it’s not high culture, but it was fun. During one of the performances (Coldplay in this instance) the lights were dimmed and the cameras showed the effect of many people in the audience wearing glowing electronic bracelets. These were clearly centrally controlled and were either red or green (or was it yellow, can’t remember). There are lots of ways this might have been orchestrated. You can signal using the lights, or by radio, ultrasound, the web, or many other mechanisms. It doesn’t matter which they used, it was a nice touch and worked well. But it did make me realise how little people use electronic jewellery. I predicted LED jewellery particularly would take off many years ago and have been very disappointed how little it has. Apart from novelty Christmas accessories, you hardly ever see LEDs in jewellery. I don’t know why that is, but you can’t argue with the market. Maybe everyone just has less tacky taste than me.

Anyway, to the point.

It isn’t necessary to have central signalling to get nice pretty effects. If each person’s bracelet were to interact only with the nearest ones, you would still get interesting effects, with much more elaborate patterns than you would expect. In the early days of study of evolution in electronic systems, there was much talk of cellular automata. Stephen Wolfram showed that some seemingly complex natural shapes and behaviours could be explained if each cell made its development ‘decisions’ based simply on the properties of its nearest neighbours. If you aren’t familiar with cellular automata, it is worth checking it out on Google, you’ll find it very stimulating and it can easily suck up a day of your time. I loved that theory and greatly enjoyed exploring the patterns on my computer. It worked well. With my own background in finite element analysis it seemed obvious in hindsight, as many great insights do. But he had that insight, not me. I went on to apply it to hardware and network evolution based on digital hormone gradients, but that’s a different story and ancient history now. Since then, a lot of work has been done on the wider class of emergent behaviours, linking strongly to complexity and chaos theory.

I didn’t track down who makes the X Factor bracelets,so I don’t know their full functionality but let’s hope that they will bring out future versions that can talk direct to each other, assuming that these can’t yet. And obviously they could be hats, headbands, bracelets, rings, t-shirts or pretty much anything you can wear. As long as they are easily visible they could work well. It doesn’t even have to be a new piece of jewellery. It would work just as easily with a smartphone app, though I can’t be bothered to write one.

Emergent behaviours will produce interesting effects, many of which can’t be predicted. They could be programmed to behave out of the box with some basic cellular automata algorithms , e.g what is the state of the other devices I can hear best? That would already produce nice patterns to someone watching at a distance, with waves of colour change oscillating wildly around a community as people move around. Many of these would be biomimetic, precisely nature apparently uses similar algorithms. Or they could take manual inputs from their wearers. That would also be fascinating. Users might pick a particular emotional state they want to  project. Then the patterns and colours would evolve according to the social mood in the area. People could play games with the patterns, or use them as an elaborate form of tribal signalling and communication. In today’s age that could be in anything from parties and rock concerts to urban riots. Marketers are unlikely to ignore their potential too.

The X Factor may make debatably good TV, but social jewellery can certainly be good fun, and you can prove mathematically that its effects can’t all be predicted, so we’d get some surprises too. It might not take off, but I really hope it will. In times of economic gloom, we can do with some extra fun.



Do we need banks?

Every company should think often about the threats and opportunities facing it over the next few years. It is easy to be too narrowly focused, considering only how to protect or gain market share, so look sometimes at the big picture. What if changes mean your whole industry is in danger? When you next think through the future of your industry, one of the best questions you can ask is:

If it didn’t already exist, would we need to invent it?

If the answer is no, you shouldn’t be worrying about your market share, but about your escape plan.

Let’s address the question at banking, topical as The City is threatened by proposed changes in EU regulation and our government is rightfully fighting to protect the  income coming into the UK. Nevertheless, I think that if we didn’t already have the banks, we would have no need to invent them. Do we need banks? No.

Banking earns a lot of money, but ultimately it comes from other companies and individuals (though many are overseas). It is a drain on the rest of the economy, skimming off generous profits from everything it touches. Nice for bankers, but bad for everyone else. If we can find a way of providing banking services  without the high costs, most of us would be better off.

In fact it isn’t just banking but financial services generally that are affected. Banking, insurance, pensions and so on are all essential to today’s everyday life, but that doesn’t mean their current implementations are the best way to provide them. Financial services don’t directly add to overall global wealth, but they do facilitate many things that do.  They are valuable, even essential, but they could now be provided by alternative systems at much lower cost, so we could still get the services, but keep our money. With lower operating costs, the rest of the economy would benefit.

The UK is in a position that it benefits greatly from an industry that isn’t needed, but without which the world as a whole would be better off. The UK’s most cost effective (though selfish) strategy would be to delay its downfall and milk it while it lasts, while still encouraging its replacement within the UK.

All of the services that banks and other financial services provide today could be provided far more cheaply via social and business networks, transactions executed securely in the cloud. This ‘could’ is heading rapidly towards reality already with development of online payments, social networking sites, smartphones and expectation of secure connections.

With easy transfer of money or other financial tokens directly between devices, or across the cloud using Paypal or its descendants and competitors, we are on a good position now. Social networking allows communities to build for self banking or self insurance. It doesn’t take very much to add on the required security and integrate the electronic payments and databases. Secure social networks could then bypass banks for secure storage of money, record keeping, transactions, savings and investments. Linking people direct to others who can lend them cash is one thing, but someone needs to verify their trustworthiness. We should expect that such services will often be provided by the very fabric of the social network. If someone is a friend or a trusted friend of a friend, then you may be willing to take a risk on them. If you don’t know them, then this is a perfectly valid financial service that can be offered by freelance risk assessors and loss adjusters.

So we should watch out for social networks that are establishing networks that are based on trust and know identity. I wouldn’t consider lending to someone with an anonymous user ID. I need to know who they really are and how to get hold of them should anything go wrong. I suspect that in this role, derivatives of Google+ will fare far better than the likes of Facebook.

It won’t be easy to bypass the banks, but companies or web communities will find it easier and easier as the technology gradually develops over the next few years. Banks are in a good position for now, and there is no reason to leave them just for the sake of it. If they offer good service at reasonable price, some at least will probably stay in business. But complacency is never wise. They now do face real existential threats and should be preparing for new competition coming from outside their own community.

Whether we should protect banks or encourage companies to develop ways to bypass them is an interesting question. Competition doesn’t always deliver better services and no solution is ever without its problems. But although they may do a great job at least in some areas some of the time, banks do syphon off a great deal from the economy, and it is possible that we might be able to do something better with that cash. Personally, I really am not sure where the balance lies, but the possibilities are certainly intriguing.