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The Future Began Yesterday

December 12th, 2009 by

Mayday by wili on Flickr

“The future begins today” is a favorite slogan of many technocrats. But the reality is, it began yesterday.

Many of the inventions which will affect our lives during the next few decades have already been made. Right at this moment, unknown to most people, their applications are being developed in thousands of technology companies around the globe. These applications will have a phenomenal impact on our daily lives.

Just to take a few examples of how recent technological developments will affect our future:

  • The Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector is currently undergoing a revolution that will most likely transform our work and daily life even more than the PC revolution in the early nineties. Can you imagine?
  • In physics, a series of breakthroughs in the development of superconductors will have a huge impact on future information technology, and will allow, for example, very high-speed microcomputers to be developed.
  • Over the last few decades, large supercomputers have become cheaper and their applications more widespread. They will even let us predict the future – of the weather at least! – allowing us to make reliable weather forecasts two weeks, maybe even a month, ahead in time.
  • In supercomputing, a circle is also closing. In the early 1970s, physicists at the University of Helsinki bought computer time from Copenhagen. (I spent many nights manually punching tens of thousands of punch cards. It is hard to believe now!) In the near future, instead of buying powerful computers like we do today, we will once again buy computer time, at a price which varies by the hour. The computer, or rather the computers that we will use, may be located anywhere on Earth. CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, uses this method already for analyzing the data produced by the new superaccelerator LHC
  • In electrical communications a revolution is also taking place. Laser videos, new computer memories, and the availability of thousands of satellite channels are transforming the way we educate ourselves and communicate information across the world. We already access a huge amount of well-organized and graphically displayed information at home at the touch of a button. This is only going to increase.
  • Recent innovation in brain research and information technology is now allowing the human mind to link directly to computers. Brains and computers work together, so that each performs those functions for which they are best suited. Information can be moved from the computer’s memory straight into the human memory and back again. We can even download information and mental images from other peoples’ memories to our own!

This is exciting stuff, but it can also be overwhelming. Science and technology are evolving so quickly that it is difficult for us ordinary people to deal with all the consequences. The new technology feels strange, even frightening to us. We do not quite know how to react to it. We feel intimidated, confused, and even a bit dim-witted. Social decision-making and legislative work therefore fall behind and our involvement with technology falters.

And herein lies the challenge: As ordinary people, we must be prepared to receive these new technologies, know how to deal with them, understand how to use them for our benefit and how to avoid wasted opportunities and even negative impacts. We must hurry to get involved in technology. We must influence it and make it such that the Earth is a good place for us, for our children and grandchildren to live and to thrive.

How do we meet this challenge? By being informed, by keeping up with new developments, by thinking about how to use technology and not just letting it overwhelm us, by not being technophobic, by believing in our own ability to use technology. It is the product of human invention after all! Its possibilities began, and remain, in our creative and intelligent hands.

Let Us Think Creatively

December 10th, 2009 by

HUH? BERNARD DEHYDRATED WATER Product. At last, Stephen Wright has some instructions: 'I bought some powdered water but I didn’t know what to add.'* by EraPhernalia Vintage (here . . . every now & then)
I read a newspaper story about creativity training recently. In it a creativity consultant boasted that by doing his course you could increase your creativity exponentially. I wondered: is this true? Can creativity really be trained?

Creative thinking is characterized by openness and vigilance. It requires the ability and the desire to question accepted truths. Creative people are suspicious of ready models and routines. They constantly ask themselves: How can we do this differently? How can we do this better?

The chief obstacle to truly creative thinking is that previously learned concepts form a mental burden. Well-known educationalist and mathematician Seymour Papert calls this the QWERTY phenomenon.

An ordinary computer keyboard has the letters QWERTY on the top line, he explains. The reason for this is historic. In the early days, typewriters were clumsy and their keys often stuck together. To reduce the problem, the keys, which often appeared in succession, were placed in different parts of the keyboard. Of course, developments in technology eliminated the sticking-key problem pretty quickly. Yet people are now so accustomed to QWERTY that they don’t think about why the keys are in this order. And even fewer ask: would some other order be better?

In business seminars directors talk about employees being an important asset to any company. The participants nod approvingly: yes, that is right. But they’re talking about employees who do their jobs without questioning or challenging the status quo – employees who don’t think creatively. In the majority of companies and organizations a cold, even hostile, attitude prevails to creatively thinking workers. They are considered odd, or difficult – even troublemakers.

As a techy-type, I appreciate so-called ‘engineering thinking’. When an engineer tackles a complex problem, s/he first clarifies the facts and then divides the problem into many parts which are each solved with logical reasoning and tested methods. After solving each part of the problem an overall solution to the original problem is found.

All this is well and good, but sometimes it’s not enough. Sometimes, creativity is needed to solve problems. Suppose that you have two TVs. You try to tune them so that you can see channels 1 – 4 in both of them. You draw charts, take the backs of the TVs, rearrange wires. But no matter how many carefully-engineered ways you try to solve this problem, you do not succeed. On one TV you get channels 1 and 2, on the other, channels 3 and 4. What to do? My wife solved this problem in a simple and creative way: she connected the antennas of the two televisions to each other and – voila! – all four channels can now be seen on both our TVs. An electrical engineer would not have found this simple and elegant solution.

I don’t really believe in creativity training. But I do believe that creative thinking can be promoted, by encouraging the conditions in which creativity thrives and by accepting creative thinking and giving it living space. Creative thinking is like a sensitive plant; to flourish, it needs space, light, water and a little bit of love.

Creativity is similar to talent. Some have it, some don’t. But most people have more talent and creativity than they realize or ever make use of. And if they can be encouraged to use it, who knows what might result? Let us being to think creatively, and find out.

Look Who’s Talking

December 9th, 2009 by

Male sex toilet by Jonas in China on Flickr

As anyone who has ever tried to learn a new language knows, it is jolly tough. You have to memorise the vocab, conjugate the verbs, get your word order right and even then you don’t understand a word of what the locals say.

Of course – as is always the case in life – some people are annoyingly good at learning new languages. The most talented seem to pick them up like normal people pick up colds.

For the rest of us mere mortals, who prefer to watch our foreign movies with subtitles, the ongoing effort to improve machine translation is a noble cause. Although I secretly enjoy being able to do at least one thing better than my computer, even I can see the upside. Imagine a world where everyone could understand each other. The potential for economic and social progress is enormous.

If my computer does ever manage to translate something better than a human translator can, it will deserve my respect. Even for a machine, the translation of language is incredibly complicated. While the computer has no problem memorizing the language, it has myriad other problems.

For one thing, words spoken in one language do not always have an exact match in another. They might also have more than one meaning in their own language, with the relevant meaning implied through the surrounding words. And even if all the words in a sentence have an exact match in the target language, the sentence structure in the other language can be different.

Machine translation attempts to overcome these obstacles by use of comprehensive dictionaries and computer algorithms to convert text from one language to another. Despite the complications highlighted above, languages generally tend to follow set rules of structure and syntax. As such, machine translation can result in quite accurate translations, especially in areas where language used is repetitive and follows a particular format, like weather forecasting.

As of today, those annoyingly skillful human translators are a far more accurate at conveying the nuances of languages than any computer. However, machine translation do have an advantage in terms of speed of processing. A computer program can read and translate a 500 word article in a few seconds. The poor old human translator would still be making coffee.

Where one real advantage lies is with team work. When the human finally gets back from the coffee break, he or she could sit down, and proofread the 500 words of machine translation. With the translated text already on paper and largely correct, it would speed up the task considerably.

Using computers again, this team work can be expanded to an even greater scale, using crowdsourcing of translating services. To do this a company posts a piece of text for translation on a crowdsourcing site, and anyone that can speak English and French, for example, can attempt to translate the text.

This raises obvious questions over the quality of the translations. For example, who is to say these people have the requisite ability, in either language, to make a valid translation?

Based on current studies into translation crowdsourcing, it seems that the multiple responses confer a level of quality control and it becomes comparable in accuracy to an expert translator.

Does that mean those people so ridiculously good at languages that they decided to become a translator will be out of work soon? Sadly, it seems unlikely. These studies focus on natural language tasks, such as that contained in this blog. At least for the near future, there will always be a place for an expert human translator – maybe with the help of a friendly machine translator – in complicated areas like legal or scientific writings.

The Same Old Song?

December 8th, 2009 by

Dub It by william.k on Flickr

For most people it is hard to think of a downside to the internet revolution. The “information superhighway” has made business more efficient, staying in touch with friends easier, and the opportunities for our spare time more varied.

But, as with any revolution, there have been losers. Amongst those on the wrong side of change were the local second hand stores overshadowed by Ebay, the factories that once churned out now-archaic tools like fax machines and, most famously, the traditional music industry.

Older readers will remember a time when news was delivered on paper, music via disc and movies on film. If you didn’t pay for the content directly, you at least had to put up with advertisements on the TV or radio. This simple business model now seems like a lifetime ago.

With the benefit of hindsight we can see that developments facilitating the high speed delivery of media over the internet marked a dramatic point of no return for the music industry. The practices that were taken for granted in past decades are now either obsolete, or under pressure from the virtual environment that has developed.

These practices have made a lot of money for a long time, however, so it is hardly surprising that the traditional music industry has either been reluctant to embrace change, or even actively fought against it. The futility of the industry’s attempts, and the backlash amongst fans it caused, are once again easier to see in hindsight. As Geoff Taylor, head of the music industry body BPI recently admitted to the BBC: “The music industry would be in better shape now if it had engaged with Napster rather than fought it… I, for one, regret that we weren’t faster in figuring out how to create a sustainable model for music on the internet.”

What is obvious now is that in recent years the industry as a whole has been busy building shelters instead of seizing the opportunity to build windmills. Finally, this situation is slowly changing. After many false steps it seems successful business models are emerging from the limbo of aborted attempts and the scarce understanding of digitalization.

Planning the right business model is just part of the solution, however, and raises a number of important questions. For instance, how do you tackle the notion that the music industry is substantially a mono-directional business? And how do you capitalize on fans’ enthusiasm for the music they love?

To be effective, answers to these questions must embrace the new reality the internet has created and somehow take advantage of it. Emerging victorious from the revolution is an entire generation of tech-savy, file-sharing users. These users see the traditional music industry as obsolete, greedy and outpaced by technical possibilities. Rather than buying music, games and videos at a local shop, they consider it normal to download it all for free. Content is ripped from TV broadcasts and shared with a worldwide audience minutes later via sites such as YouTube.

What has also become apparent, however, is that this traffic is not necessarily all one-way. This new generation will download music for free, but are also keen use their skills to remix media contents, create fan art, parodies and tributes, and share them with friends through social networks. Trent Reznor, connectivity evangelist and the mastermind behind Nine Inch Nails, recently gave away hundreds of GB of video material to fans, giving them the chance to freely edit and re-submit it. This idea built on an earlier experiment called the Ghosts Film Festival. This “festival” was a competition he created encouraging fans to create their own home-made video clips, using music from the Nine Inch Nails Ghosts I-IV album as the soundtrack. In response, fans created hundreds of high quality and original videos, which together generated several million hits on YouTube. In effect Reznor generated massive interest in the album with minimal effort and virtually no marketing budget. By asking for collaboration and allowing explicit usage of his materials, he effectively crowdsourced his marketing campaign to his best possible allies: his fans.

It is unclear at this early stage what experiments like Reznor’s will mean for the industry. The success of any media product is highly unpredictable. Precautionary market research and adherence to established trends can help, but when innovation is necessary, a high element of risk must be taken into account. Even so, we now know that many people will take the opportunity contribute to something they consider important, and in doing so often produce valuable results without seeking payment.

New developments in web technology and networks have created a number of interesting questions such as:
• What happens when the artist’s audience is empowered with raw materials and crowd sourcing tools?
• How do fans contribute in creating a community? Can they become volunteer workers?
• How does the web challenge copyright regulations and how can this be adapted to a new collaborative model?
• Will the industry stick to the “sue everybody” technique or embrace the shift?
• How will the economics of the market change if the audience can contribute back?

In music distribution the “good old way of doing things” is now recognized as an increasingly inefficient and frustrating mindset both for artists and their fans. Regardless of what the music industry thinks or wants, a new and wider marketplace must and will be created. The prize for those willing to meet this challenge a lucrative market with widespread access, fairness for all parties involved and an active and engaged audience that has the potential to help the industry in ways we can now only start to imagine. It may be the same old song, but it has a different meaning since the internet came along.

Power to the People

December 7th, 2009 by

The Turk. Engraving in Joseph Friedrich Racknitz, Ueber den schachspieler des herrn von Kempelen und dessen nachbildung. Shared by Library Company of Philadelphia on Flickr

In the late 18th Century “The Turk”, a remarkable chess-playing automaton, was unveiled. It toured the world, beating many high minded individuals; Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin to name but two. Ultimately the robot was revealed to be a clever hoax, controlled by a chess master hiding inside it.

Fast forward a couple of centuries to 1997. The chess-playing computer Deep Blue defeats reigning world champion Garry Kasparov 3 ½ to 2 ½ in a six-game match. Kasparov accused IBM, the computer’s makers, of cheating via human intervention during the matches. The accusation, however, was not that someone was sitting inside the computer casing pulling levers. Such a claim would have seemed absurd.

Technology has improved exponentially since the days of “The Turk”. It has even improved significantly since the days of Deep Blue. Computers are now adept at processing huge amounts of information far more quickly and accurately than humans ever have.

But there are still many things that a computer cannot do. One limitation is the subjective elements of the decision making process that cannot be written into algorithms: Computers can perform millions of calculations per second, but as soon as you ask one to choose from a selection of colours to paint a room in a house, things go awry.

Crowdsourcing is a means by which organisations attempt to cope with these types of issues. Small tasks are offered up via web applications to the online community. This is made possible due to the increased speed, reliability and accessibility of the internet.

It operates on the notion that people have underutilised spare time. Instead of watching television they might spend the time telling a pizza delivery company what flavor their next pizza should be.

People participate in crowdsourcing for various reasons. Amazon’s “Mechanical Turk“, named for the aforementioned chess-loving robot, provides a monetary incentive. In other cases, payment for services can extend to prize money for providing the best response to a task or problem.

Involvement can be for more altruistic reasons. An example of this was during the initial search for aviator Steve Fossett. Digital imagery of the area in which his plane went down was uploaded onto the internet. An estimated 50,000 people took time to examine the images, and then report back via an online application if they spotted anything unusual.

Their efforts did not result in identification of the crash site, which was eventually found when a hiker stumbled across items from Fossett’s wallet over a year later. Nevertheless it provides a good example of how the processing power of computers can be harnessed to facilitate the subjective evaluation of masses of data. Although its applications are not without problems, it is something that even The Turk and Kasparov would probably agree is a good idea.

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