Category Archives: interfaces

The future for IT technicians

This blog accompanies the British Computer Society’s launch of RITTech, a new standard for IT technicians. For more info look at: and

It is a great time to be in IT. Companies are fragmenting and reconstructing and new business models are emerging every year. Everything is becoming smart, bringing IT to pole position in the sector race. Everyone has multiple mobile devices – smart phones, tablets, readers and laptops, even smart watches and wristbands. The opportunities to add electronic control are abundant, but they all need to be developed, software written and circuits fabricated and tested. Engineers have never had more core technologies to play with to create new products and services, and they rely on technicians to make it happen.

One of the most important things for anyone in a globalised world, where potential customers or employers will often never have met you or even seen you, is to be certificated. Having a respected industry body confirm that you have reached a given level of ability makes decisions  safer. Knowing that a person has the skills required to do the job takes away the biggest risk in employing them for a project. Global companies such as Microsoft offer such certification, but so can professional bodies such as the British Computer Society. The important factor is that the body is known, respected and their certification trusted.

Trust is absolutely key in a networked world. Anyone can pretend to be anyone, and can act across borders via the net from anywhere. Dangers lurk everywhere. People need to know they can trust appliances they use, the websites they visit. They need to be confident that their details will not end up in the hands of criminals, especially anything related to their finances. They also need to be confident that code won’t crash their machines or leave them open to hackers. Few people have the ability to look after all the IT themselves, so they rely on others to make it safe for them. They trust a corporate brand, so they trust their website, so that means that company has to be able to trust those who write it and maintain it to be able to do their work competently and reliably.

That is all getting more and more difficult in a miniaturizing world. The internet of things is already bringing us into the early stages of digital jewellery. From there, it is only a small step further before IT devices will often be dust sized, well below a millimetre, and then they could easily fit through the holes in an office machine, or sit on keys on a keyboard. Add that to security holes in a smart light bulb that nobody thought of as a security risk, but which opens a back door into a home LAN, and it becomes obvious just how tricky it will be to make things secure.

Security will remain a background problem no matter what is being built, but that doesn’t take away the excitement of making something new. Every wave of new core technology opens up new doors to new gadgets or network capability. Artificial intelligence also adds capability in parallel. A huge gap has opened over recent years between what has become possible and what has been done. There just aren’t enough engineers and technicians to do everything. That means it has never been easier to invent things, to find something exciting that nobody has done yet. That next big thing could be invented by you.

You might think it won’t be because your boss has you working on another project, but new tech opens up potential in every area. There is probably something right next to your project waiting to be discovered or developed. Showing creativity or innovative capability will fast track you to your next promotion and when your colleagues learn you have done something special, you will feel the warm glow of recognition too. Few things feel better than peer recognition. Nobody is too junior to come up with a new idea, or a new way of looking at something, or spotting a feature that would increase customer satisfaction without increasing cost. Some of my best ideas have happened in areas I have just started work in. If you’re new, you might not have all the finely honed skills of someone who’s been working in it for years, but you also don’t have their prejudices, you don’t know why you can’t do something, so you just do it anyway. The barriers they thought they knew about may have been rendered irrelevant by technology progress but their prejudice hasn’t kept up with change. You might be surprised how often that is the case.

In short, as a technician going for certification, you are laying down a solid foundation for secure and fruitful employment in exciting fields. That same desire to take control, push yourself to your limits and make life work for you will also make you exactly the sort of person that is likely to do something  special. A technician is an important person already, making dreams happen, but ahead lies a career full of opportunity for further development, excitement and fulfilment.

Ultrasound scan bodysuit

You’ve seen ultrasound scans of pregnant women that show grainy pictures of the foetus inside so I won’t bother pasting one here and the appropriate ones are all copyrighted anyway. Medical imaging focuses on checking whether Baby is OK and reassuring the mum, but have they never heard of Instagram and Facebook? Duh! Sure, a mum-to-be can get a printout and hold it in front of her tummy, but it’s 2015!

The idea is that a woman could wear a bodysuit that houses an array of very low power ultrasonic transducers and detectors which that would allow a scan over a long period, and the bodysuit would also house a cute OLED display window to have a look inside. The transducers would be low power because in spite of ultrasound scans being a normal part of pregnancy today, there have been a few concerns about safety in the past, so even if a single scan is safe, having many of them every day might not be, so the lower the power the better, and the more transducers and receivers that are available, the better that picture could be. A periodic low power pulse from each transducer is what I’d imagine and the sensors would use the data from each pulse to improve the image, which would only change slowly over time – we’re not after heartbeat monitoring here, we’re looking for Instagram pics of Baby. State of the art imaging technology should then allow a nice 3D picture of the foetus to be built up over time. There is no hurry if the woman is wearing it for hours. Having got such an image, of course the proud mum will want it on her Instagram and Facebook pages, so obviously a web link should be in the bodysuit too, or at least a bluetooth link to Mum’s mobile, but she might also want it on a display built into the bodysuit so she can show off her baby in situ so to speak. If she doesn’t want the OLED display in the suit because maternity bodysuits look crap, she could wear a smartphone pouch belt and use that.

OK, back to work.

The future of make-up

I was digging through some old 2002 powerpoint slides for an article on active skin and stumbled across probably the worst illustration I have ever done, though in my defense, I was documenting a great many ideas that day and spent only a few minutes on it:

smart makeup

If a woman ever looks like this, and isn’t impersonating a bald Frenchman, she has more problems to worry about than her make-up. The pic does however manage to convey the basic principle, and that’s all that is needed for a technical description. The idea is that her face can be electronically demarked into various makeup regions and the makeup on those regions can therefore adopt the appropriate colour for that region. In the pic ‘nanosomes’ wasn’t a serious name, but a sarcastic take on the cosmetics industry which loves to take scientific sounding words and invent new ones that make their products sound much more high tech than they actually are. Nanotech could certainly play a role, but since the eye can’t discern features smaller than 0.1mm, it isn’t essential. This is no longer just an idea, companies are now working on development of smart makeup, and we already have prototype electronic tattoos, one of the layers I used for my active skin but again based on an earlier vision.

The original idea didn’t use electronics, but simply used self-organisation tech I’d designed in 1993 on an electronic DNA project. Either way would work, but the makeup would be different for each.

The electronic layer, if required, would most likely be printed onto the skin at a beauty salon, would be totally painless, last weeks and could take only a few minutes to print. It extends IoT to the face.

Both mechanisms could use makeup containing flat plates that create colour by diffraction the same way the scales on a butterfly does. That would make an excellent colour pallet. Beetles produce colour a different way and that would work too. Or we could copy squids or cuttlefish. Nature has given us many excellent start points for biomimetics, and indeed the self-organisation principles were stolen from nature too. Nature used hormone gradients to help your cells differentiate when you were an embryo. If nature can arrange the rich microscopic detail of every part of your face, then similar techniques can certainly work for a simple surface layer of make-up. Having the electronic underlay makes self organisation easier but it isn’t essential. There are many ways to implement self organisation in makeup and only some of them require any electronics at all, and some of those would use electronic particles embedded in the make-up rather than an underlay.

An electronic underlay can be useful to provide the energy for a transition too, and that allows the makeup to change colour on command. That means in principle that a woman could slap the makeup all over her face and touch a button on her digital mirror (which might simply be a tablet or smart phone) and the make-up would instantly change to be like the picture she selected. With suitable power availability, the make-up could be a full refresh rate video display, and we might see teenagers walking future streets wearing kaleidoscopic make-up that shows garish cartoon video expressions and animates their emoticons. More mature women might choose different appearances for different situations and they could be selected manually via an app or gesture or automatically by predetermined location settings.

Obviously, make-up is mostly used on the face, but once it becomes the basis of a smear-on computer display, it could be used on any part of the body as a full touch sensitive display area, e.g. the forearm.

Although some men already wear makeup, many more might use smart make-up as its techie nature makes it more acceptable.

Why Uber will soon be history due to a category error

I have nothing against Uber, I’ve never used them, or Hailo, but they are just as dispensable as their drivers. My next blog will be about my vision for an all-electric zero-emission driverless transport system and it has no use for Uber.

However, before I write that, I have a small issue to clear up. A couple of weeks ago I tweeted that the London cabbies who were protesting against Uber are very proud of spending years to learn the best way to get from A to B, yet a satnav device can calculate the best route in a few seconds (and though my tweet didn’t even go that far, any half-decent satnav will also take full account of the real-time traffic and congestion situation). A straightforward fact you might think, but a great many taxi drivers took offence at it, and not just in London. One taxi firm near Boston, even made a crude and ineffective attempt at a cyber-attack. Don’t give up the day job guys!

A future transport system using driverless cars doesn’t need drivers of course but that doesn’t mean that all of them will be out of a job. Carrying luggage, helping people with mobility problems and providing company and conversation on the way is a very valuable service too, as are provision of local tourist advice, general information, strongly held opinions on every possible topic and other personality-based charms. We won’t NEED taxi drivers, but I for one would really miss them.

Uber thinks they are well on top of the driverless car trend:

Perhaps it is just as well they want to go driverless because I’m told many of their drivers are starting to get angry with Uber too. Uber is wrong if they think driverless cars will make them the future. Possibly they will benefit for a short while during technology transition, but the simple fact is that future transport systems don’t need Uber or Hailo any more than they need taxi drivers. Since Uber pays very little tax on their large revenues, they are also putting themselves on the wrong side of public opinion, and that is not a very clever thing to do at all: Their worst error though is that their vision of future transport technology is focused on the current state of the art, not the future. If you are planning a future strategy, you absolutely should not base it on today’s technology.

They say they will buy all of Tesla’s output of self-driving cars: Well, I hope they can make them pay fast, because they will be obsolete very soon indeed. Uber won’t survive long, not if they make this kind of error. Technology will soon make Uber irrelevant too, and unless they improve their corporate values, not many will bother to turn up at their funeral unless it is to gloat.

Google will presumably also want their self-driving cars out there too. The rest of the car industry also won’t go down without a fight, so there will be a many a battle to establish market share in self-driving cars. Apple will want all their self-driving cars out there too. Until 5 minutes ago, I thought there was just the tiniest possibility that Apple were going to be a bit smarter. Maybe Apple had noticed the same thing I had. But no, a quick Google search confirms that Apple have made the same mistake too, and just bought in the wrong guy: These companies have other businesses so won’t really care much if one project goes down. Google, Apple, Samsung, LG et al will be far more likely to flourish in the real future than Uber or Hailo.

The error is very serious. You’ve made it, I’ve made it. The entire auto industry has made it. It’s a category error.

We’ve all been conflating ‘driverless’ and ‘self-driving’. They are not the same.

The future doesn’t need self-driving cars, it needs driverless cars. They both save lives, save the environment, save resources, save congestion, save time, and save cost. One saves a little, the other saves a LOT.

The entire car industry, as well as Uber, Google, Tesla, and even Apple have all bet on the wrong one, but some have better chance of surviving the consequences their errors than others. I’ll outline the basic principles of the technology waves that can wipe out self-driving cars in my next blog, and actually since the technology is easier in many ways than getting self-driving working, it could even bypass them. We may never see an age of self-driving cars. We can get a far better system, far faster and far cheaper.

It is time to consider any investments you have in the transport industry. Severe turbulence ahead!

The future of feminism and fashion

Perhaps it’s a bit presumptive of me to talk about what feminists want or don’t want, but I will make the simplifying assumption that they vary somewhat and don’t all want the same things. When it comes to makeup, many feminists want to look how they want to look for their own pleasure, not specifically to appeal to men, or they may want to attract some people and not others, or they may not want to bother with makeup at all, but still be able to look nice for the right people.

Augmented reality will allow those options. AR creates an extra layer of appearance that allows a woman to present herself any way she wants via an avatar, and also to vary presented appearance according to who is looking at her. So she may choose to be attractive to people she finds attractive, and plain to people she’d rather not get attention from. This is independent of any makeup she might be wearing, so she may choose not to wear any at all and rely entirely on the augmented reality layer to replace makeup, saving a lot of time, effort and expense. She could even use skin care products such as face masks that are purely functional, nourishing or protecting her face, but which don’t look very nice. Friends, colleagues and particular subsections of total strangers would still see her as she wants to be seen and she might not care about how she appears to others.

It may therefore be possible that feminism could use makeup as a future activist platform. It would allow women to seize back control over their appearance in a far more precise way, making it abundantly clear that their appearance belongs to them and is under their control and that they control who they look nice for. They would not have to give up looking good for themselves or their friends, but would be able to exclude any groups currently out of favour.

However, it doesn’t have to be just virtual appearance that they can control electronically. It is also possible to have actual physical makeup that changes according to time, location, emotional state or circumstances. Active makeup does just that, but I’ve written too often about that. Let’s look instead at other options:

Fashion has created many different clothing accessories over the years. It has taken far longer than it should, but we are now finally seeing flexible polymer displays being forged into wrist watch straps and health monitoring bands as well as bendy and curvy phones. As 1920s era fashion makes a small comeback, it can’t be long before headbands and hair-bands come back and they would be a perfect display platform too. Hair accessories can be pretty much any shape and size, and be a single display zone or multiple ones. Some could even use holographic displays, so that the accessory seems to change its form, or have optional remote components seemingly hanging free in the nearby air. Any of these could be electronically controllable or set to adjust automatically according to location and the people present.

Displays would also make good forehead jewellery, such as electronic eyebrows, holographic jewels, smart bindis, forehead tattoos and so on. They could change colour or pattern according to emotions for example. As long as displays are small, skin flexing doesn’t present too big an engineering barrier.

In fact, small display particles such as electronic glitter could group together to appear as a single display, even though each is attached to a different piece of skin. Thus, flexing of the skin is still possible with a collection of rigid small displays, which could be millimetre sized electronic glitter. Electronic glitter could contain small capacitors that store energy harvested from temperature difference between the skin and the environment, periodically allowing a colour change.

However, it won’t be just the forehead that is available once displays become totally flexible. That will make the whole visible face an electronic display platform instead of just a place for dumb makeup. Smart freckles and moles could make a fashion reappearance. Lips and cheeks could change colour according to mood and pre-decided protocols, rather than just at the whim of nature.

Other parts of the body would likely house displays too. Fingernails and toenails could be an early candidate since they are relatively rigid. The wrist and forearm are also often exposed. Much of the rest of the body is concealed by clothing most of the time, but seasonal displays are likely when it is more often bare. Beach displays could interact with swimwear, or even substitute for it.

In fact, enabling a multitude of tiny displays on the face and around the body will undoubtedly create a new fashion design language. Some dialects could be secret, only understood by certain groups, a tribal language. Fashion has always had an extensive symbology and adding electronic components to the various items will extend its potential range. It is impossible to predict what different things will mean to mainstream and sub-cultures, as meanings evolve chaotically from random beginnings. But there will certainly be many people and groups willing to capitalise on the opportunities presented. Feminism could use such devices and languages to good effect.

Clothing and accessories such as jewellery are also obvious potential display platforms. A good clue for the preferred location is the preferred location today for similar usage. For example, many people wear logos, messages and pictures on their T-shirts, whereas other items of clothing remain mostly free of them. The T-shirt is therefore by far the most likely electronic display area. Belts, boots, shoes and bag-straps offer a likely platform too, not because they are used so much today, but because they again present an easy and relatively rigid physical platform.

Timescales for this run from historical appearance of LED jewellery at Christmas (which I am very glad to say I also predicted well in advance) right through to holographic plates that appear to hover around the person as they walk around. I’ve explained in previous blogs how actual floating and mobile plates could be made using plasma and electro-magnetics. But the timescale of relevance in the next few years is that of the cheaper and flexible polymer display. As costs fall and size increases, in parallel with an ever improving wireless and cloud infrastructure, the potential revenue from a large new sector combining the fashion and display industries will make this not so much likely as  inevitable.

The future of cleaning

I’ve been thinking a bit about cleaning for various customers over the last few years. I won’t bother this time with the various self-cleaning fabrics, the fancy new ultrasonic bubble washing machines, or ultraviolet sterilization for hospitals, even though those are all very important areas.  I won’t even focus on using your old sonic toothbrush heads in warm water with a little detergent to clean the trickier areas of your porcelain collectibles, though that does work much better than I thought it would.

I will instead introduce a new idea for the age of internet of things.

When you put your clothes into a future washing machine, it will also debug, back up, update and run all the antivirus and other security routines to sanitize the IoT stuff in them.

You might also have a box with thew same functions that you can put your portable devices or other things that can’t be washed.

The trouble with internet of things, the new name for the extremely old idea of chips in everything, is that you can put chips in everything, and there is always some reason for doing so, even if it’s only for marking it for ownership purposes. Mostly there are numerous other reasons so you might even find many chips or functions running on a single object. You can’t even keep up with all the usernames and passwords and operating system updates for the few devices you already own. Having hundreds or thousands of them will be impossible if there isn’t an easy way of electronically sanitizing them and updating them. Some can be maintained via the cloud, and you’ll have some apps for looking after some subgroups of them. But some of those devices might well be in parts of your home where the signals don’t penetrate easily. Some will only be used rarely. Some will use batteries that run down and get replaced. Others will be out of date for other reasons. Having a single central device that you can use to process them will be useful.

The washing machine will likely be networked anyway for various functions such as maintenance, energy negotiations and program downloads for special garments. It makes sense to add electronic processing for the garments too. They will be in the machine quite a long time so download speed shouldn’t be a problem, and each part of the garment comes close to a transmitter or sensor each time it is spun around.

A simple box is easy to understand and easy to use too. It might need ports to plug into but more likely wireless or optical connections would be used. The box could electromagnetically shield the device from other interference or security infiltration during processing to make sure it comes out clean and safe and malware free as well as fully updated. A common box means only having to program your preferences once too.

There would still be some devices that can’t be processed either in a box or in a washing machine. Examples such as smart paints or smart light bulbs or smart fuses would all be easier to process using networked connections, and they may well be. Some might prefer a slightly more individual approach, so pointing a mobile device at them would single them out from others in the vicinity. This sort of approach would also allow easier interrogation of the current state, diagnostics or inspection.

Whatever way internet of things goes, cleaning will take on a new and important dimension. We already do it as routine PC maintenance but removing malware and updating software will soon become a part of our whole house cleaning routine.

Technology 2040: Technotopia denied by human nature

This is a reblog of the Business Weekly piece I wrote for their 25th anniversary.

It’s essentially a very compact overview of the enormous scope for technology progress, followed by a reality check as we start filtering that potential through very imperfect human nature and systems.

25 years is a long time in technology, a little less than a third of a lifetime. For the first third, you’re stuck having to live with primitive technology. Then in the middle third it gets a lot better. Then for the last third, you’re mainly trying to keep up and understand it, still using the stuff you learned in the middle third.

The technology we are using today is pretty much along the lines of what we expected in 1990, 25 years ago. Only a few details are different. We don’t have 2Gb/s per second to the home yet and AI is certainly taking its time to reach human level intelligence, let alone consciousness, but apart from that, we’re still on course. Technology is extremely predictable. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is just how few surprises there have been.

The next 25 years might be just as predictable. We already know some of the highlights for the coming years – virtual reality, augmented reality, 3D printing, advanced AI and conscious computers, graphene based materials, widespread Internet of Things, connections to the nervous system and the brain, more use of biometrics, active contact lenses and digital jewellery, use of the skin as an IT platform, smart materials, and that’s just IT – there will be similarly big developments in every other field too. All of these will develop much further than the primitive hints we see today, and will form much of the technology foundation for everyday life in 2040.

For me the most exciting trend will be the convergence of man and machine, as our nervous system becomes just another IT domain, our brains get enhanced by external IT and better biotech is enabled via nanotechnology, allowing IT to be incorporated into drugs and their delivery systems as well as diagnostic tools. This early stage transhumanism will occur in parallel with enhanced genetic manipulation, development of sophisticated exoskeletons and smart drugs, and highlights another major trend, which is that technology will increasingly feature in ethical debates. That will become a big issue. Sometimes the debates will be about morality, and religious battles will result. Sometimes different parts of the population or different countries will take opposing views and cultural or political battles will result. Trading one group’s interests and rights against another’s will not be easy. Tensions between left and right wing views may well become even higher than they already are today. One man’s security is another man’s oppression.

There will certainly be many fantastic benefits from improving technology. We’ll live longer, healthier lives and the steady economic growth from improving technology will make the vast majority of people financially comfortable (2.5% real growth sustained for 25 years would increase the economy by 85%). But it won’t be paradise. All those conflicts over whether we should or shouldn’t use technology in particular ways will guarantee frequent demonstrations. Misuses of tech by criminals, terrorists or ethically challenged companies will severely erode the effects of benefits. There will still be a mix of good and bad. We’ll have fixed some problems and created some new ones.

The technology change is exciting in many ways, but for me, the greatest significance is that towards the end of the next 25 years, we will reach the end of the industrial revolution and enter a new age. The industrial revolution lasted hundreds of years, during which engineers harnessed scientific breakthroughs and their own ingenuity to advance technology. Once we create AI smarter than humans, the dependence on human science and ingenuity ends. Humans begin to lose both understanding and control. Thereafter, we will only be passengers. At first, we’ll be paying passengers in a taxi, deciding the direction of travel or destination, but it won’t be long before the forces of singularity replace that taxi service with AIs deciding for themselves which routes to offer us and running many more for their own culture, on which we may not be invited. That won’t happen overnight, but it will happen quickly. By 2040, that trend may already be unstoppable.

Meanwhile, technology used by humans will demonstrate the diversity and consequences of human nature, for good and bad. We will have some choice of how to use technology, and a certain amount of individual freedom, but the big decisions will be made by sheer population numbers and statistics. Terrorists, nutters and pressure groups will harness asymmetry and vulnerabilities to cause mayhem. Tribal differences and conflicts between demographic, religious, political and other ideological groups will ensure that advancing technology will be used to increase the power of social conflict. Authorities will want to enforce and maintain control and security, so drones, biometrics, advanced sensor miniaturisation and networking will extend and magnify surveillance and greater restrictions will be imposed, while freedom and privacy will evaporate. State oppression is sadly as likely an outcome of advancing technology as any utopian dream. Increasing automation will force a redesign of capitalism. Transhumanism will begin. People will demand more control over their own and their children’s genetics, extra features for their brains and nervous systems. To prevent rebellion, authorities will have little choice but to permit leisure use of smart drugs, virtual escapism, a re-scoping of consciousness. Human nature itself will be put up for redesign.

We may not like this restricted, filtered, politically managed potential offered by future technology. It offers utopia, but only in a theoretical way. Human nature ensures that utopia will not be the actual result. That in turn means that we will need strong and wise leadership, stronger and wiser than we have seen of late to get the best without also getting the worst.

The next 25 years will be arguably the most important in human history. It will be the time when people will have to decide whether we want to live together in prosperity, nurturing and mutual respect, or to use technology to fight, oppress and exploit one another, with the inevitable restrictions and controls that would cause. Sadly, the fine engineering and scientist minds that have got us this far will gradually be taken out of that decision process.

The IT dark age – The relapse

I long ago used a slide in my talks about the IT dark age, showing how we’d come through a period (early 90s)where engineers were in charge and it worked, into an era where accountants had got hold of it and were misusing it (mid 90s), followed by a terrible period where administrators discovered it and used it in the worst ways possible (late 90s, early 00s). After that dark age, we started to emerge into an age of IT enlightenment, where the dumbest of behaviors had hopefully been filtered out and we were starting to use it correctly and reap the benefits.

Well, we’ve gone into relapse. We have entered a period of uncertain duration where the hard-won wisdom we’d accumulated and handed down has been thrown in the bin by a new generation of engineers, accountants and administrators and some extraordinarily stupid decisions and system designs are once again being made. The new design process is apparently quite straightforward: What task are we trying to solve? How can we achieve this in the least effective, least secure, most time-consuming, most annoying, most customer loyalty destructive way possible? Now, how fast can we implement that? Get to it!

If aliens landed and looked at some of the recent ways we have started to use IT, they’d conclude that this was all a green conspiracy, designed to make everyone so anti-technology that we’d be happy to throw hundreds of years of progress away and go back to the 16th century. Given that they have been so successful in destroying so much of the environment under the banner of protecting it, there is sufficient evidence that greens really haven’t a clue what they are doing, but worse still, gullible political and business leaders will cheerfully do the exact opposite of what they want as long as the right doublespeak is used when they’re sold the policy.

The main Green laboratory in the UK is the previously nice seaside town of Brighton. Being an extreme socialist party, that one might think would be a binperson’s best friend, the Greens in charge nevertheless managed to force their binpeople to go on strike, making what ought to be an environmental paradise into a stinking litter-strewn cesspit for several weeks. They’ve also managed to create near-permanent traffic gridlock supposedly to maximise the amount of air pollution and CO2 they can get from the traffic.

More recently, they have decided to change their parking meters for the very latest IT. No longer do you have to reach into your pocket and push a few coins into a machine and carry a paper ticket all the way back to your car windscreen. Such a tedious process consumed up to a minute of your day. It simply had to be replaced with proper modern technology. There are loads of IT solutions to pick from, but the Greens apparently decided to go for the worst possible implementation, resulting in numerous press reports about how awful it is. IT should not be awful, it can and should be done in ways that are better in almost every way than old-fashioned systems. I rarely drive anyway and go to Brighton very rarely, but I am still annoyed at incompetent or deliberate misuse of IT.

If I were to go there by car, I’d also have to go via the Dartford Crossing, where again, inappropriate IT has been used incompetently to replace a tollbooth system that makes no economic sense in the first place. The government would be better off if it simply paid for it directly. Instead, each person using it is likely to be fined if they don’t know how it operates, and even if they do, they have to spend a lot more expensive time and effort to pay than before. Again, it is a severe abuse of IT, conferring a tiny benefit on a tiny group of people at the expense of significant extra load on very many people.

Another financial example is the migration to self-pay terminals in shops. In Stansted Airport’s W H Smith a couple of days ago, I sat watching a long queue of people taking forever to buy newspapers. Instead of a few seconds handing over a coin and walking out, it was taking a minute or more to read menus, choose which buttons to touch, inspecting papers to find barcodes, fumbling for credit cards, checking some more boxes, checking they hadn’t left their boarding pass or paper behind, and finally leaving. An assistant stood there idle, watching people struggle instead of serving them in a few seconds. I wanted a paper but the long queue was sufficient deterrent and they lost the sale. Who wins in such a situation? The staff who lost their jobs certainly didn’t. I as the customer had no paper to read so I didn’t win. I would be astonished with all the lost sales if W H Smith were better off so they didn’t win. The airport will likely make less from their take too. Even the terminal manufacturing industry only swaps one type of POS terminal for another with marginally different costs. I’m not knocking W H Smith, they are just another of loads of companies doing this now. But it isn’t progress, it is going backwards.

When I arrived at my hotel, another electronic terminal was replacing a check-in assistant with a check-in terminal usage assistant. He was very friendly and helpful, but check-in wasn’t any easier or faster for me, and the terminal design still needed him to be there too because like so many others, it was designed by people who have zero understanding of how other people actually do things.  Just like those ticket machines in rail stations that we all detest.

When I got to my room, the thermostat used a tiny LCD panel, with tiny meaningless symbols, with no backlight, in a dimly lit room, with black text on a dark green background. So even after searching for my reading glasses, since I hadn’t brought a torch with me, I couldn’t see a thing on it so I couldn’t use the air conditioning. An on/off switch and a simple wheel with temperature marked on it used to work perfectly fine. If it ain’t broke, don’t do your very best to totally wreck it.

These are just a few everyday examples, alongside other everyday IT abuses such as minute fonts and frequent use of meaningless icons instead of straightforward text. IT is wonderful. We can make devices with absolutely superb capability for very little cost. We can make lives happier, better, easier, healthier, more prosperous, even more environmentally friendly.

Why then are so many people so intent on using advanced IT to drag us back into another dark age?



The future of publishing

There are more information channels now than ever. These include thousands of new TV and radio channels that are enabled by the internet, millions of YouTube videos, new electronic book and magazine platforms such as tablets and mobile devices, talking books, easy print-on-demand, 3D printing, holograms, games platforms, interactive books, augmented reality and even AI chatbots, all in parallel with blogs, websites and social media such as Facebook, Linked-In, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr and so on. It has never been easier to publish something. It no longer has to cost money, and many avenues can even be anonymous so it needn’t even cost reputation if you publish something you shouldn’t. In terms of means and opportunity, there is plenty of both. Motive is built into human nature. People want to talk, to write, to create, to be looked at, to be listened to.

That doesn’t guarantee fame and fortune. Tens of millions of electronic books are written by software every year – mostly just themed copy and paste collections using content found online –  so that already makes it hard for a book to be seen, even before you consider the millions of other human authors. There are hundreds of times more new books every year now than when we all had to go via ‘proper publishers’.

The limiting factor is attention. There are only so many eyeballs, they only have a certain amount of available time each day and they are very spoiled for choice. Sure, we’re making more people, but population has doubled in 30 years, whereas published material volume doubles every few months. That means ever more competition for the attention of those eyeballs.

When there is a glut of material available for consumption, potential viewers must somehow decide what to look at to make the most of their own time. Conventional publishing had that sorted very well. Publishers only published things they knew they could sell, and made sure the work was done to a high quality – something it is all too easy to skip when self-publishing – and devoted the largest marketing budgets at those products that had the greatest potential. That was mostly determined by how well known the author was and how well liked their work. So when you walked through a bookshop door, you are immediately faced with the books most people want. New authors took years of effort to get to those places, and most never did. Now, it is harder still. Self-publishing authors can hit the big time, but it is very hard to do so, and very few make it.

Selling isn’t the only motivation for writing. Writing helps me formulate ideas, flesh them out, debug them, and tidy them up into cohesive arguments or insights. It helps me maintain a supply of fresh and original content that I need to stay in business. I write even when I have no intention of publishing and a large fraction of my writing stays as drafts, never published, having served its purpose during the act of writing. (Even so, when I do bother to write a book, it is still very nice if someone wants to buy it). It is also fun to write, and rewarding to see a finished piece appear. My sci-fi novel Space Anchor was written entirely for the joy of writing. I had a fantastic month writing it. I started on 3 July and published on 29th. I woke every night with ideas for the next day and couldn’t wait to get up and start typing. When I ran out of ideas, I typed its final paragraphs, lightly edited it and published.

The future of writing looks even more fun. Artificial intelligence is nowhere near the level yet where you can explain an idea to a computer in ordinary conversation and tell it to get on with it, but it will be one day, fairly soon. Interactive writing using AI to do the work will be very reward-rich, creativity-rich, a highly worthwhile experience in itself regardless of any market. Today, it takes forever to write and tidy up a piece. If AI does most of that, you could concentrate on the ideas and story, the fun bits. AI could also make suggestions to make your work better. We could all write fantastic novels. With better AI, it could even make a film based on your ideas. We could all write sci-fi films to rival the best blockbusters of today. But when there are a billion fantastic films to watch, the same attention problem applies. If nobody is going to see your work because of simple statistics, then that is only a problem if your motivation is to be seen or to sell. If you are doing it for your own pleasure, then it could be just as rewarding, maybe even more so. A lot of works would be produced simply for pleasure, but that still dilutes the marketplace for those hoping to sell.

An AI could just write all by itself and cut you out of the loop completely. It could see what topics are currently fashionable and instantaneously make works to tap that market. Given the volume of computer-produced books we already have, adding high level AI could fill the idea space in a genre very quickly. A book or film would compete against huge numbers of others catering to similar taste, many of which are free.

AI also extends the market for cooperative works. Groups of people could collaborate with AI doing all the boring admin and organisation as well as production and value add. The same conversational interface would work just as well for software or app or website production, or setting up a company. Groups of friends could formulate ideas together, and produce works for their own consumption. Books or films that are made together are shared experiences and help bind the group together, giving them shared stories that each has contributed to. Such future publication could therefore be part of socialization, a tribal glue, tribal identity.

This future glut of content doesn’t mean we won’t still have best sellers. As the market supply expands towards infinity, the attention problem means that people will be even more drawn to proven content suppliers. Brands become more important. Production values and editorial approach become more important. People who really understand a market sector and have established a strong presence in it will do even better as the market expands, because customers will seek out trusted suppliers.

So the future publishing market may be a vast sea of high quality content, attached to even bigger oceans of low quality content. In that world of virtually infinite supply, the few islands where people can feel on familiar ground and have easy access to a known and trusted quality product will become strong attractors. Supply and demand equations normally show decreasing price as supply rises, but I suspect that starts to reverse once supply passes a critical point. Faced with an infinite supply of cheap products, people will actually pay more to narrow the choice. In that world, self-publishing will primarily be self-motivated, for fun or self-actualization with only a few star authors making serious money from it. Professional publishing will still have most of the best channels with the most reliable content and the most customers and it will still be big business.

I’ll still do both.

The future of freedom of speech

This is mainly about the UK, but some applies elsewhere too.

The UK Police are in trouble yet again for taking the side of criminals against the law-abiding population. Our police seem to have frequent trouble with understanding the purpose of their existence. This time in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders, some police forces decided that their top priority was not to protect freedom of speech nor to protect law-abiding people from terrorists, but instead to visit the newsagents that were selling Charlie Hebdo and get the names of people buying copies. Charlie Hebdo has become synonymous with the right to exercise freedom of speech, and by taking names of its buyers, those police forces have clearly decided that Charlie Hebdo readers are the problem, not the terrorists. Some readers might indeed present a threat, but so might anyone in the population. Until there is evidence to suspect a crime, or at the very least plotting of a crime, it is absolutely no rightful business of the police what anyone does. Taking names of buyers treats them as potential suspects for future hate crimes. It is all very ‘Minority Report’, mixed with more than a touch of ‘Nineteen-eighty-four’. It is highly disturbing.

The Chief Constable has since clarified to the forces that this was overstepping the mark, and one of the offending forces has since apologised. The others presumably still think they were in the right. I haven’t yet heard any mention of them saying they have deleted the names from their records.

This behavior is wrong but not surprising. The UK police often seem to have socio-political agendas that direct their priorities and practices in upholding the law, individually and institutionally.

Our politicians often pay lip service to freedom of speech while legislating for the opposite. Clamping down on press freedom and creation of thought crimes (aka hate crimes) have both used the excuse of relatively small abuses of freedom to justify taking away our traditional freedom of speech. The government reaction to the Charlie Hebdo massacre was not to ensure that freedom of speech is protected in the UK, but to increase surveillance powers and guard against any possible backlash. The police have also become notorious for checking social media in case anyone has said anything that could possibly be taken as offensive by anyone. Freedom of speech only remains in the UK provided you don’t say anything that anyone could claim to be offended by, unless you can claim to be a member of a preferred victim group, in which case it sometimes seems that you can do or say whatever you want. Some universities won’t even allow some topics to be discussed. Freedom of speech is under high downward pressure.

So where next? Privacy erosion is a related problem that becomes lethal to freedom when combined with a desire for increasing surveillance. Anyone commenting on social media already assumes that the police are copied in, but if government gets its way, that will be extended to list of the internet services or websites you visit, and anything you type into search. That isn’t the end though.

Our televisions and games consoles listen in to our conversation (to facilitate voice commands) and send some of the voice recording to the manufacturers. We should expect that many IoT devices will do so too. Some might send video, perhaps to facilitate gesture recognition, and the companies might keep that too. I don’t know whether they data mine any of it for potential advertising value or whether they are 100% benign and only use it to deliver the best possible service to the user. Your guess is as good as mine.

However, since the principle has already been demonstrated, we should expect that the police may one day force them to give up their accumulated data. They could run a smart search on the entire population to find any voice or video samples or photos that might indicate anything remotely suspicious, and could then use legislation to increase monitoring of the suspects. They could make an extensive suspicion database for the whole population, just in case it might be useful. Given that there is already strong pressure to classify a wide range of ordinary everyday relationship rows or financial quarrels as domestic abuse, this is a worrying prospect. The vast majority of the population have had arguments with a partner at some time, used a disparaging comment or called someone a name in the heat of the moment, said something in the privacy of their home that they would never dare say in public, used terminology that isn’t up to date or said something less than complimentary about someone on TV. All we need now to make the ‘Demolition Man’ automated fine printout a reality is more time and more of the same government and police attitudes as we are accustomed to.

The next generation of software for the TVs and games consoles could easily include monitoring of eye gaze direction, maybe some already do. It might need that for control (e.g look and blink), or to make games smarter or for other benign reasons. But when the future police get the records of everything you have watched, what image was showing on that particular part of the screen when you made that particular expression, or made that gesture or said that, then we will pretty much have the thought police. They could get a full statistical picture of your attitudes to a wide range of individuals, groups, practices, politics or policies, and a long list of ‘offences’ for anyone they don’t like this week. None of us are saints.

The technology is all entirely feasible in the near future. What will make it real or imaginary is the attitude of the authorities, the law of the land and especially the attitude of the police. Since we are seeing an increasing disconnect between the police and the intent behind the law of the land, I am not the only one that this will worry.

We’ve already lost much of our freedom of speech in the UK. If we do not protest loudly enough and defend what we have left, we will soon lose the rest, and then lose freedom of thought. Without the freedom to think what you want, you don’t have any freedom worth having.