Daily Archives: February 2, 2012

Environmental and engineering convergence

My best friend Dave Faulkner runs an environmental consultancy. I host a couple of his papers on global warming on the Futurizon web site. We have many a beer over debate about environmental issues. Over the years, I have worked a few times with both Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. I have a lot of respect for Jonathon Porritt and Doug Parr. We share a passion for a healthy environment, though we disagree on some of the ways to achieve it. It’s the same with my friend Dave. I can like and respect a person without agreeing with everything they say. It is nicer still when some common ground appears.

Only a small bit of my work involves environmental issues so I am far from expert in the environment field, though I do have my own embryonic environmental consultancy now. But I am expert at studying the future overall and pretty good at making predictions – I get it right 6 times more often than I get it wrong – and as I look at the many factors affecting the way the world is going, I feel hesitantly optimistic. There is some potential for a techno-utopia but I know we won’t get that. We will take a sub-optimal path that creates as many new problems as we solve. The world of 2050 and beyond will still be a mixture of good and bad, just with different goods and bads.

The approach to our environment though is one area I think will improve. On one side, we have the likes of Porritt and Parr, leading much of the green community and doing what they can to motivate people with the desire to live in a nicer world in harmony with nature. I can’t fault that, only in some of the policies they recommend to achieve it, which I think come from occasional flaws in their analyses. On another side, engineers are racing to develop better technologies, sometimes deliberately to help the environment, but more often almost coincidentally making better toys that happen to be better for the environment. Engineers are mostly driven by market forces, but they are still human, and many also care passionately for the environment, so will generally seek solutions that do their job but are better for the environment where the choice exists. In fact, it is hard to spot examples of new technology that are worse for the environment than their predecessors. Market forces, mediated through well motivated engineers, can make the world better just as well as any green. Both can help us move to a better world. 

I see a lot of needless worrying by environmentalists though, some of whom (I won’t name names) think of scientists and engineers as the enemy. Needless worry, and sometimes counter-productive. One of the big worries this week is that a lot of resources are scarce that we need to make renewable energy, or to make batteries to store it. But almost at the same time, articles appear on inductive power delivery to cars that circumvents the need for large batteries and hence the need for lithium – I even proposed that solution myself a few years ago, so it is good to see it appearing as a project somewhere. New materials for IT are being developed too, so we won’t rely for much longer on the other things that are scarce. So, no worries, it’s just a short-term problem. For the last few years it has been recommending spending trillions to avoid carbon dioxide production. But even without spending any trillions, future energy technology that is being developed anyway will make fossil fuels redundant, so it will take care of itself. Panic is expensive but unnecessary, the worry needless and counter-productive, serving only to slow down the race to sustainability by diverting funds to the wrong areas.

The environment has some very good friends in engineering now. Biomimetics is the engineering field of copying ideas  or at least inspiration from nature. I’ve occasionally use biokleptics when an idea is blatantly stolen. Nature doesn’t have any lawyers defending her intellectual property rights, but has been using random trial and error for 3 billion years to develop some fantastic engineering solutions and if anything encourages their copying. So, someone looks at spiders and develops a new kind of architecture that produces better structures with less material. Going way back to the 80s, I looked at evolution and made the tiny deductive leap to thinking of evolving software and hardware, then soon after looked at embryo growth and came up with ideas of how to self organise telecomms networks and sensor nets. I love biomimetics.  So do many other engineers, and the whole field is exploding now. It will help to make systems, objects, fabrics, materials, architecture and processes that are more energy or resource efficient, and quite often more beautiful.There are a few purists who insist on copying something exactly as nature does it, but mostly engineers are happy to be inspired and make their own tweaks to adapt it to needs. So, long ago, Icarus started the field by copying nature but a century ago we discovered we could make planes more easily with metal fixed wings.

Synthetic biology essentially completes the relationship by adding human design into biology. This embryonic field will expand vastly, and will be used for a wide range of tasks from resource extraction and processing, to computing. Nanotech and insights from neuroscience will add more to allow rich interaction between organic and inorganic devices, often bridging the gap to allow us to put electronic devices in direct connection with our bodies, or those of other creatures. This field also allows the wonderful possibility of undoing some of the damage done to the environment, and even making nature work better. Gaia 2.0 will be with us this century. Of course, if we don’t develop all this science and technology, we will be stuck with a human world that is immensely resource hungry and getting worse, using far more resources than would otherwise be needed, damaging the environment, with no hope of repairing the damage. There wouldn’t even be a plus side, because people would also live poorer lives and be less fulfilled and less happy.

Having been highly convergent on the goal of making the world a better place, this is where engineers often part company with greens. Most engineers think better engineering is the best route to a sustainable world, most greens (and, it has to be admitted, some engineers) think we should slow it all down. This superficially suggests lower environmental impact, implying that people will consume less if they swap devices less often, or don’t get that next pay rise, but it doesn’t deliver. It is a wrong deduction. In much the same way that poor people are often fatter than rich people, what it does change is the access to a better diet, in this case, of environmentally friendlier technology that really needs extra R&D before it is with us. That funding comes from market demand and the ability to pay, and that needs more people to be richer. For the next several decades, what we need is economic growth, selectively. Again, I start to agree with Porritt here. It isn’t just any growth we need, but growth that is spent wisely, using growth to improve peoples lives, and improving the environment we live in either directly or via R&D and the greener technology it will deliver.

Progress and The Care Economy (btw, the UN is badly wrong)

I’ve often written about the Care Economy, the one that I think comes after the information economy. As new things come over the horizon, it is always worth an update. And anyway, I promised a while back to write further on the future of capitalism: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2012/01/04/we-need-to-rethink-capitalism/ so time to get on with it I guess. The Care Economy idea is resonating better with the way the word is now than when I first raised it in the 90s. We see a stronger desire to live sustainably, to see human skills valued per se rather than just financial wealth. These are both care economy values.

The primary driver for the care economy is progress in machines. Let’s include large-scale robotics and AI of course, but let’s also recognise that much of the progress now happens at invisibly small scales, in biotech, in synthetic biology, biomimetics, in synthetic neurology.  Taking the most obvious and most easily quantifiable area, the fastest supercomputers now compare to the human brain in overall power (which I estimate at the equivalent of around 10^15 instructions per second and 10^15 bits of storage, though it is a bit of an apples-and-oranges comparison). Thanks to the limits on Moore’s Law recently having been pushed back another decade or two, their descendants will carry on getting even better (graphene and molybdenene circuits can be smaller and faster, with lasagne processors not far away, not to mention smart yoghurt, so there is a lot of potential still in the pipeline, but that’s another blog). Eventually, even personal gadgets will have better capability than the Mk1 human brain (unless regulation intervenes).

An ordinary computer doesn’t work the same way as the brain of course, but work is also ongoing in understanding how the brain works, and scientists can produce electronic equivalents to some small brain regions already. Electronics isn’t all digital chips, there are many other sorts of devices too. With a big well-stocked toolbox and detailed instruction manuals, or descendants will be able to do a lot with electronics.

What then for your information economy job? Well, it will eventually be better, faster and cheaper to use some sort of machine instead of you. That will force you to retrain or to concentrate on those areas of your job that can’t still be done by machine, and those areas will be shrinking.

The Care Economy is recognition of this problem, and suggesting that we will focus more and more on the emotional, human interaction, side of work. Social, emotional, interpersonal skills will be relatively more important. Hence, for lack of a better name, the care economy. However, there is absolutely no guarantee that the number of care economy jobs will expand to fill the number leaving the information economy. Today, about 30% of jobs are in what could reasonably be described as the care economy. This can grow, but not indefinitely. So we will have to rework our economy to avoid excessive polarisation between haves and have nots. That won’t be easy. We will need to redesign capitalism.

It isn’t going to be just that a lot of people in information economy jobs will have migrated to care economy jobs. The nature of the economy will change. With machines increasingly doing the physical and intellectual work, it will be like a black box economy, where people put a request into the box, and out comes the required product. The cost of material goods will drop a great deal, as will the materials and energy needed – progress in all branches of science and engineering will accelerate a great deal as AI adds hugely to the available thinking. (Some of us call this the singularity, though that can be a somewhat misleading term, because infinite development speed is not possible.) A small number of people plus a lot of machine power will take basic resources (mined or recycled, it matters not) and add highly to their usefulness, vastly more than previous technology generations could. Nanotech, biotech, infotech and cognotech will converge and will allow tiny amounts of physical resource to yield huge benefits in people’s lives. NBIC convergence includes areas such as synthetic biology, biomimetics, which will adsorb parts of IT and strong AI as well as materials technology and nanotech. And vice versa.

I am not certain whether professional economists call it economic growth if we end up with far more stuff at lower output cost. Reduction in costs reduces prices, which reduces the size of the financial economy if growth in demand doesn’t grow faster. It is certainly a growth in the economy to me, since money is only one factor that indicates wealth and economics isn’t about money, it is about managing resources to gain the greatest benefit. And this benefit will grow spectacularly. In the care economy, we could even see less money but still all have a far higher standard of living. Money simply becomes less important as things become cheaper.

So one of a characteristics of the Care Economy is that it is a time of spectacular growth in material wealth, of plenty, even as it reduces environmental impact and improves the valuation of human interaction. Even if there is less of what we now call money (there may not be less money, I’m just saying it doesn’t necessarily matter if there is).

I find myself agreeing a bit, but mostly disagreeing with the UN’s recent proclamations here. (quick summary here:http://news.yahoo.com/un-panel-says-retool-world-economy-sustainability-164515165.html)

I fully agree that we need to become sustainable, and need to value non-financial things like quality of environment and human social well-being more. I believe strongly that the technology progress route is the best way to achieve it. The UN is very wrong with their approach. They are coming at it from totally the wrong angle, not understanding that technology progress can deliver lower environmental impact than cutting back on standard of living. Whether this is extreme left-wing influence or just bad futurist advice I don’t know. What is clear is that they argue for the opposite philosophy, that growth is bad, that we should trim back our lifestyles because only then can we live sustainably. That is nonsense, we don’t need to do that. In fact, to do so slows down the demand for new products slows down the progress to better ones that are more environmentally friendly. We are faced with a simple choice. Do we want to live in a healthy environment with happy people with a fantastic lifestyle? Or do we want a UN world of relative poverty, using primitive technology sparingly and telling ourselves it is for our own good, polishing our halos to make ourselves feel better?

The care economy will change our value sets as it progresses. If we leap towards the mature care economy, say 2050, where anyone can buy a $100 device with a five-figure IQ, and integrate it so well into their nervous system that it acts as a brain extension, what is the value of being smart? If anyone can use an assembler to create pretty much anything they can imagine (within modest size and resource limits), what is the value of physical skill? If anyone can use technology to reach what is today Olympic class performance in any sport within months, where is the value in being faster or stronger or more precise? Historical advantage has come from being born with a genetic advantage, and using cultural advantage to nurture it to overall benefit. Technology levels the field.

So we will value the most core of human skills, being human. Even if R2D2 can beat you in just about every way possible, it still won’t be human.

2050 is some way off, and the information economy is still running at full speed. However, we already see the increasing focus on human value and reduction of emphasis on financial wealth as indicators of happiness or even national well-being. We already see more demands for human value-add, such as ‘authenticity’, or provenance. Even celebrity is increasing in value. Some new trends will start soon. As people come to value machines less and humans more, companies will find the markets forcing them to become closer to the customer, to become more integrated into their customer communities. Many care economy businesses will emerge from social network sites.

The biggest problem with all of this, and it remains unresolved, is that increasing  efficiency via machine effort reduces the number of people needed in many job areas, and offers no guarantee elsewhere that new jobs will be created in equal measure. We don’t want to end up with many people unemployed and poor. We have to make sure somehow that everyone has access to the very nice life potentially on offer. We do need to redesign capitalism.

I wrote in my capitalism piece about taxing the accumulated human knowledge and infrastructure needed to make all the automated systems – those using them shouldn’t be able to keep all the wealth for themselves if the entire society has contributed, providing capital and effort is important and valuable, but nevertheless is only one of the inputs, and should be valued as such.

One idea that has started to gain ground since then is that of reducing the working week. It also has some merit. If there is enough work for 50 hours a week, it is perhaps better to have 2 people working 25 each than one working 50 and one unemployed, one rich and one poor. If more work becomes available, then they can both work longer again. This becomes more attractive still as automation brings the costs down so that the 25 hours provides enough to live well. It is one idea, and I am confident there will be more.

Concluding, we are one notch closer to the care economy. We can see a bit better where the technology path is leading, and can already see some of the signs of cultural change. We are also becoming more aware of some of the problems along the way, but are starting to produce potential solutions for them.  Sadly, we now have misguided institutions like the UN muddying the waters with policy suggestions that would destroy the potential for good, and make the world a worse place. The UN suggestions are based on poor thinking and bad futurology. They should be ignored.