Archive for the 'Futures' Category

16
Feb
11

one more chance for humans?

I’ve been following with interest the “Jeopardy!” programs featuring Watson, the IBM supercomputer designed to play the game. On the first program Monday Watson took an early lead over the human “Jeopardy!” champs, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, but it seemed stumped when the high-dollar questions were reached, and the game ended in a tie between Watson and Rutter. In the second game Watson ran away with the lead.

So what caught my attention this morning was the headline of the article in International Business Times: “Round Two Goes to Watson; Humans Have One More Chance.” So how did the article’s author, Gabriel Pena, mean “one more chance for humans”? One more chance to win “Jeopardy!” ? Or does it mean something more existentially ominous: one more chance for humans before we’re replace by machines smarter than we are?

I don’t think it’s time to panic. And I’m a real skeptic of ideas like the “singularity”: a time in the not-too-distant-future at which computers become so intelligent and superior at controlling systems in our world that we’re irrelevant.

But my wife’s reaction to the prospect of Watson beating some really smart guys is telling. She asked, “So who’s going to loose their job?” Ah, yes! Haven’t we learned a few things during the so-called “Great Recession”? One of them is that people laid off are not being rehired; companies are investing in “productivity” tools rather than jobs. “Productivity” is a code word for doing the same work with fewer jobs.  If you are not the person running the new productivity devices then your job’s in jeopardy for sure. Implementing higher productivity has been a basic economic process for a long time, but Watson’s technology is enough to make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.

Technological productivity advances are like riding on the back of a tiger: if you stay on its back you’re okay, but if you fall off you’re chow. Watson is a productivity system that appears to have made a real stride in being able to take a English language question and parse it into a specific information request better than than earlier question-answering technologies. IBM calls it “open question answering.” The company is going to turn this into commercial procuct and apply it initially in medicine and medical law. It will help researchers or doctors plow through vast stores of unstructured information like journals to come up with answers to their questions more efficiently than anything before.  As and IBM exec, David McQueeney, said to the Washing Post this morning:

“Imagine taking Watson, and instead of feeding it song lyrics and Shakespeare, imagine feeding it medical papers and theses,” he said. “And put that machine next to an expert human clinician.”

With the computer intelligently processing a vast amount of data and the doctor using his or her own professional knowledge to guide and refine a search, McQueeney said, IBM thinks the quality of that diagnosis could be better than what the doctor comes up with alone.

Looks like doctors will be the first up on the back of this tiger.

I have been a skeptic about artificial intelligence for a long time. I’ve been hearing that AI is right around the corner since the ’50s. Lots of claims have been made but, like the rocket-belt, flying car, nuclear fusion, undersea cities, and the cure for cancer, the expected results haven’t been delivered. Watson is by no means and equivalent to human intelligence, but it appears to be an indicator that progress is being made. We’re not about to be made totally obsolete any time soon — if ever — but the “second chance” for many of us is to stay abreast of this emerging technology and use it as our tool rather than have it put us behind the 8-ball.

14
Jan
11

A slap on the side of the head

I’ve said before I’m grateful to Sputnik and the USSR for enabling me to get a good education back in the ’50s and ’60s. The US taxpayers were generous to education during that time mainly, it seems to me, because we were scared as hell the Soviets were going to surpass us.

Perhaps something similar is happening again. This time it’s the Chinese. All of a sudden they seem like the 900 lb. gorilla in the room. Back last December the results of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released the results of it’s international standardized education program (PISA) comparing 2009 test scores on math, reading, and science for 15-year-olds in 65 countries. The top four aggregate scores were, in order, Shanahai-China, Finland, Hong Kong-China and Singapore. The US teens in 24th place in math, 17th in reading and 23rd in science. The US students ranked down in the pack with many European countries.

That results have raised alarm in some quarters.

“We have to see this as a wake-up call,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in an interview on Monday.

“I know skeptics will want to argue with the results, but we consider them to be accurate and reliable, and we have to see them as a challenge to get better,” he added. “The United States came in 23rd or 24th in most subjects. We can quibble, or we can face the brutal truth that we’re being out-educated.”

Well, in the US a sense of crisis seems to be needed to get any action on social issues. So perhaps another Chinese surprise–the quite visible test flight of a stealth fighter just as US Secretary of Defense Gates landed for a visit–will add the the sense of urgency.

Maybe it’s a question of whose “exceptionalism” will win. The US has proclaimed it’s exceptionalim for decades. Scholars say the Chinese have a sense of cultural exceptionalim that goes back a couple of millennia. So when is the chest thumping of exceptionalism a confidence-builder, and when is it a pair of foggy, rose-colored glasses that obscure a society’s perception of the capabilities of other people?

04
Jan
11

life in the megacity

Scientific American had an article a few days ago about recent ideas about the future of “megacities.” Especially in the developing world millions upon millions of people are moving from the farm to the city. As these cities grow one of the big concerns is that the cities will build themselves so that high carbon transportation (a.k.a., automobiles) will be the only feasible way to get around. Los Angeles is the prototypical American city built almost exclusively for auto travel. For decades mass transport was rejected in LA in favor of spending the money on more freeways to accommodate the sprawl. Now mass transit is pretty much out of the question. If the rest of the growing world cities go down that road decreasing emissions will be nearly impossible.

Urban areas already account for about two-thirds of world energy use, and they’ll hit 73 percent by 2030, according to the International Energy Agency. The cities of the future will be bigger, and there will be more of them. According to the United Nations, there were 21 “megacities” in 2009 — urban agglomerations whose population exceeds 10 million. By 2025, there will be 29 — and they’ll hold one-tenth of humanity.

One group of thinkers has pegged four scenarios for urban development:

Sprawlville: cities do everything to accommodate cars in the city and to and from the burbs. But in the end the heart of the city simply succumbs to impenetrable gridlock.

Planned-opolis: where government does everything to automate commutes with self-driving cars and to computerize work so many people can work from home.

Renewabad: where cities build very dense centers with a lot of public transit.

Communi-city: in which city centers die and are replaced by lots of peripheral neighborhoods where people live and work. You can ride a bike to work.

The scenarios leave people unclear about what version or mix or versions will emerge.

But coincidentally two researchers (Adam Millard-Ball and LeeSchipper) published a preliminary copy of a paper titled: “Are We Reaching a Plateau or ‘Peak’ Travel? Trends in Passenger Transport in Six Industrialized Countries.”

In the last several years in the US, UK, Canada, Sweden, France, Germany, Japan and Australia there seems to be a plateau of travel.

Since 2003, motorized travel demand has leveled out or even declined in most of the countries studied, and travel in private vehicles has declined,” the authors wrote in their study. “Car ownership has continued to rise, but these cars are being driven less.

There are several factors that probably play a role: car market saturation, the recession, the price of gas, and aging population. But they assert that the main factor may be road congestion.

The researchers think that the biggest factor of the travel plateau may be traffic congestion. As Schipper said in an interview with Miller-McCune, “My basic thesis is, ‘There ain’t room on the road.’ You can’t move in Jakarta or Bangkok or any large city in Latin America or in any city in the wealthy part of China. I think Manila takes the prize. Yes, fuel economy is really important, and yes, hybrid cars will help. But even a car that generates no CO2 still generates a traffic problem. Sadly, what is going to restrain car use the most is that you can’t move.”

It could be that some problems work themselves out in the long run. The solution may not be what anybody wants, but it’s what you get when you hit the wall. Auto transport may just grind to a halt in the megacities mentioned above, opening the door to other alternatives.

01
Jan
11

Here we come, ready or not!

Compare the population pyramid of the USA whic...
Image via Wikipedia

On this date 65 years ago the first kids of what would become the “Baby Boom Generation” started to build perhaps the most influential demographic in US history. Today the first ones turn a symbolic and practical corner by entering the traditional 65-year-olds bracket. It’s like the first play of the fourth quarter of a football game. There’s more game ahead, but the end is palpably approaching.

I got a three-week jump on the gang. I was born in December 1945, but I still count myself in that social bracket. It took awhile for a social perception of the big population bulge to emerge and longer to find out what the consequences would be. As the “pig in the python” moved through the decades the sheer size of the population affected everything from education to social norms to defense practices.

Now here we are at another key point. We’ve gotten better at understanding that such a large population pool has social, political, and economic consequences, but in the US we still don’t do much to actually prepare for things. Ken Dyctwald has been talking about the “Age Wave” since I was in public health grad-school 40 years ago. He’s made a career and an industry out of spelling out what’s coming…but knowing that the hurricane is swirling around and heading to shore hasn’t produced great preparation. The Age Wave may result in something Katrina-like because, in the US, we have ideological prejudice against planning. No, we prefer to wait until the calamity is upon us and then scramble to survive. After it’s over we proclaim: “We made some mistakes but we learned from this disaster and it’ll never happen again.” Famous last words, over and over.

I’ve gotta say, already having my Medicare card in my pocket and Social Security checks being deposited in the bank is comforting. It’s the people at the back of the Boomer cohort that have more reason to sweat it. The denouement of the Baby Boom generation is one of the huge dynamic factors that, along with others, suggest to me that the future will be like a vortex–hence the name of this blog–of swirling forces that’ll send us all spinning. For what it’s worth, here we come.

26
Dec
10

Auguring the future

I can’t help being fascinated by prognostications about the future. My last post was about online jobs for 2011, and the end of the year provokes a lot of crystal ball gazing. Even heavyweights like IBM indulge in exercising their forecasting skills. You’ve gotta pay at least  some attention to what an outfit with such a solid track record has to say. These are things to happen between now and 2015.

  1. Batteries for your gadgets will last up to ten times longer. The batteries will “breathe” or take in oxygen from the air and react with energy-dense metals to generate energy.
  2. In some devices batteries could be replaced entirely by scavenging energy from our surroundings. Watches that maintain a charge by taking energy from the motion of your wrist, as some do today, is an example. There’s a lot of unused energy around; the problem is transducing it.
  3. IBM plans to recycle much of the energy used in data centers to heat buildings and drive air conditioning. Up to half of the energy of data centers today is just to keep the servers cool, and it goes out to the air again through cooling towers. Hey, I might be able to heat my shower water with my home computers?
  4. They’re expecting 3D communication person to person by hologram like Princes Leia in the first Stars Wars movie.
  5. IBM’s looking at “adaptive traffic systems” that’ll personalize your commute,  predict traffic jams and adjust the flow. (It’s kinda discouraging to think that people will still be grinding away their lives on commutes to awful offices. Let’s go with the holograms and Google’s self-driving vehicles.)
  6. Finally, Big Blue predicts that we ordinary citizens will be “walking sensors” equipped with enough environmental sensors in our phones to keep a running data stream to analysts who can use it to do scientific ecological research.

I’m disappointed that IBM didn’t mention health applications of being walking sensors, so I’ll add another prediction of my own: By 2015 we’ll be wired with sensors alright, but many of them will be plastered on us so continuous data can be collected about how our body is doing 24/7. With that I think we’ll be able to get a lot closer to the idea of personalized medicine and personalized health behavior. There are a lot of companies already working on a range of data collection devices and another five years ought to bring much of it into common use.

26
Dec
10

Jobs for 2011 and beyond

I retired a year ago, but I feel f or the people who aren’t working because their job was shot out from under them one way or another. So I was interested in this data from oDesk about online jobs in 2011. They predict:

  • Online work will continue to double year-over-year, while local employment will not rebound to pre-recession levels.
  • In the next year, more than 500,000 employers will tap cloud-based workforces for the first time, including 25% of the Fortune 500.
  • The number of people looking to online work as the primary or sole source of their income will double over 2011.
  • Hiring of online workers by non-U.S. companies will explode in 2011. Proportionally, U.S. spending in this area will grow more slowly next year, and will represent 65% of the total spent on online work.

The top 10 categories of job in demand include:

  1. Web programming
  2. Web design
  3. Blog and article writing
  4. Data entry
  5. Graphic design
  6. Search engine optimization
  7. Other web development
  8. Website content
  9. Mobile apps
  10. Web research

The top 10 skills needed include:

  1. PHP
  2. HTML
  3. English
  4. WordPress
  5. Photoshop
  6. CSS
  7. SEO
  8. MySQL
  9. Writing
  10. MS Excel

I’d make two points: 1) a lot of these are not strictly IT jobs and some of the skills are really generic (writing, English!), and, 2) the online access to jobs is really increasing. So no matter what your job these days, you need to develop and keep online skills. This will become more the case in the near future. I feel sorry for some of my former colleagues who dismissed web activity as “that stuff my kids know” and now are out of work in their 50s.

With the economy and politics forcing the workforce to put together longer and longer careers, it’s absolutely necessary to plan to keep your skills, cultural knowledge and attitudes sharp for 50 years, not just long enough to make middle-management.

23
Nov
10

Single molecule computer chip

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Just how do you mean that, sir?

In the 1967 movie, The Graduate, a family friend, Mr. McGuire, offers Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) just one word of advice to set him on a path to future success: “plastics.” That was more than 40 years ago. If I were to adopt a one-word recommendation for the emerging generation it would be: “nanotech.” I’ve mentioned this before.

I was reminded again last week about how dramatic the development in the science and technology of billionth-of-a-meter devices is. Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) Institute of Materials Research and Engineering announced a partnership with 10 European Union organizations for the ATMOL project–an effort to build a single molecule computer processor.

A*STAR’s IMRE and 10 EU research organisations are working together to build what is essentially a single molecule processor chip. As a comparison, a thousand of such molecular chips could fit into one of today’s microchips, the core device that determines computational speed. The ambitious project, termed Atomic Scale and Single Molecule Logic Gate Technologies (ATMOL), will establish a new process for making a complete molecular chip. This means that computing power can be increased significantly but take up only a small fraction of the space that is required by today’s standards.

The R&D will work on some cutting-edge techniques for creating molecular components: “The fabrication process involves the use of three unique ultra high vacuum (UHV) atomic scale interconnection machines which build the chip atom-by-atom. These machines physically move atoms into place one at a time at cryogenic temperatures.”

But here’s the thing about this path to success: How do you sustain a career in a field where your current knowledge is as evanescent as the morning dew? Riches will be made in nanotechnology, but knowledge obsolescence has been a problem for mid-career technicians in IT for decades. I don’t see how it’ll get any better.

19
Nov
10

Chinese-born scientist reveals why the future belongs to China

Earlier this week there was an article about a China-born scientist named Yihua Zeng who is a solar weather scientist developing techniques to predict solar storms so we can anticipate the effects the energy outbursts will have on Earth and the finicky satellites swarming around it.

This is a new field and the article related how Ms. Zeng came to her calling. She was born in China after the Cultural Revolution had screwed up the nation and her father’s life for a couple of decades. After 1977 things got better and she started school. The article reports:

She was encouraged in math and science ever since elementary school in a culture that honored the sciences. “Being a scientist is very cool and very sacred,” says Zheng. “It’s almost every child’s dream to be a scientist when they grow up.”

That’s the remark that blew my mind! Imagine — in contrast to the prevailing culture in America — that we too honored the sciences and the dream of children was to be a scientist when they grow up. I can’t even imagine a greater contrast between two societies. Highly educated people in the US have been treated with derision and even suspicion my wholelife. Many names have been given to scientists: nerd, geek, dork, brain, egghead, mad scientist, weirdo, etc. The negative epithets applied to the highly educated and to scientists  have demonstrably damaged the recruitment of capable young students into math and science, especially girls. “A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” but it happens every day.

In America we have idolized the man of action, or the common-sense, two-fisted action figure. Solve problems with muscle, not brains. In Asia and other countries the intelligent, well-educated person is venerated. That, to my way of thinking, is a cultural flaw America that can’t reverse any time soon. We scratch our heads and ask, “How do we fix our schools? Why is our education system broken?” Ms. Zeng revealed why: it’s a cultural thing and cultures are incredibly hard to change. Our grad schools are filled with foreign students, but today countries like China are actively working to repatriate them after graduation unlike a couple of decades ago.

A few months ago I posted about how much China is committing huge amounts of money to educating their population. Add to that the comments of Ms. Zeng and I think the future seems pretty clear. I have long believed that the future belongs to the countries or cultures that make the most of their intellectual capital: the brains of their people. Those cultures deserve to lead the world. Seems to me the leadership in science, technology, and, hence, wealth and culture will shift to other hands.

06
Nov
10

Back to the ’60s

I’m having a feeling of deja vu. Friday night there were window-smashing demonstrations in Oakland — where I worked for 30 years — over a sense of injustice about the sentgencing of the BART cop who shot Oscar Grant to death last year (http://bit.ly/9WkA2d). I also see there’s a New Black Panther Party (http://bit.ly/bOYNaS). But I remember well the Original Black Panther Party (http://bit.ly/9P9fZU). I remember the hot waves of rage from their bull-horns at demonstrations. The reason I bring this up is that I’m getting a tingling feeling on the back of my neck that suggests conditions are developing for a repeat of some half-century-old history. The ingredients for a volatile mix now are similar to four-and-a-half decades ago: a sense of injustice about the justice system; black unemployment nearly twice that of whites (http://bit.ly/aUcliC); imprisonment rates for black men several times as high as other ethnic groups http://bit.ly/abQTKc; and now, on top of it all, right-wing zealots determined to slash taxes and social programs no matter who it hurts. Frequently the spark that ignites violent action is the message marginalized people get that they’re not valued, not respected, not worthy.

For the past year I’ve been hearing about the “Second Amendment Solution.” That disturbs me because back in the ’60s there was another phrase that captured another desperate solution: “Burn, baby, burn!” I heard that for the first time when I came home from high school one day, turned on the TV, and learned that a just 100 miles south of where I lived a part of Los Angeles I’d never even hear of — Watts — was in flames. That was just the beginning.

I’ve been around long enough to believe firmly that people seldom learn much from history; they generally just repeat it. Call it the Groundhog Day Effect (http://bit.ly/dcNyMR). I recommend that people too young to be present and old people who have forgotten review the history of the so-called “urban riots” of the ’60s and ’70s (http://bit.ly/bmL7Al).

Someone said taxes are the price we pay for a civil society. Rand Paul and the “me, me, me” libertarians who weren’t even born during that earlier turbulent time and maybe some people my age who’ve forgotten may get a history lesson. Evidetly they don’t remember, but I do.

02
Nov
10

“American Dream” or World Dream?

Last weekend Fareed Zakaria on his CNN show, GPS, did a great set of interviews with four CEOs of major “American” companies: Lou Gerstner, former CEO of IBM; Klaus Kleinfeld, CEO of Alcoa; Muhtar Kent, CEO of Coca-Cola; and Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google. They all opined on the show’s topic : Restoring the American Dream.” I found this an interesting coincidence since my last post was about how an iconic US company, Intel, has become a global giant that is sprinkling the largess of its chip manufacturing business around the world including a community in my own backyard.

I thought the questions from Fareed and responses from the execs did an exceptional job of examining what led up to the current anxiety about the country’s future and of eliciting some thoughtful ideas about what needs to be done to get back on track to a strong economy and national self-confidence. I would encourage everyone to watch the podcast.

Of the four CEOs, the one whose remarks resonated most with me was Lou Gerstner, perhaps because we appear to be about the same age and perhaps have witnessed the same history. He raised some issues I’ve thought about but that I have not seen discussed before. Fareed asked Gerstner if we could get back to the American Dream of the past. Gerstner said:

We come from a world where we sort of  had it made. The American Dream was a reality but it was driven by factors that no longer exist. We were alone in the world after WWII. In fact the war itself got us out of a depression and got us into investments in important technologies. And then we had the cold war; we had Sputnik. We had all these things that drove us to have a common purpose. Today I don’t see that.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. That’s what I experienced growing up. During WWII the major nations in Europe and Asia were knocked flat on their backs. They spent more than a generation recovering from the war. During that time Americans seemed to inflate with the idea of  American exceptionalism.  I think there was a degree of racial arrogance in it as well. Many seemed to think that our Caucasian, post-European culture made us inherently superior to the masses of dark-skinned, black-haired people of the world just struggling to survive. We would always be on top because we were superior and, et sequitur, we deserved to be there.

Sputnik gave the US a great shock for which I will be forever grateful. California, where I was born, had developed a first-rate public education system, and I was drafted into a strong curriculum of math and science in high school. After all, the country needed rocket scientists. I attended University of California schools at a fraction of what kids pay today. Of course, that was also before the taxpayers decided in 1978 through the infamous Prop. 13 they didn’t want to support community education that much with property taxes and precipitated the decline of education in the state.

The other CEOs on Fareed’s show last weekend did a good job explaining how global trade — which was supposed to enlarge America’s power and wealth — turned around to bite us in the butt. It turns out there are a lot of hungry, smart, hard-working people in the world who would like to make the American Dream their dream too. The American Dream is the model for the global middle-class vision.

My takeaway from “Restoring the American Dream” is that today’s families have to greatly enlarge the frame within which they plan for their future well-being. The playing field for prosperity grows more and more level. Thinking just locally about  job security is not enough. Over the horizon there are many millions of children in classrooms and workers in factories aspiring to live affluently. Rising to that level and staying there is going to take a lifetime of foresight and effort.




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