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Why the Future Isn’t Evenly Distributed


How often do we hear people ask “Why isn’t the future here yet? Where are the gleaming cities connected by suspended walkways that look disturbingly like Habitrails? Where are the moon colonies and twinkling domed cities? Where are the robot servants dressed in 1940’s maid uniforms?” And most ubiquitously, “Where, oh where, are the flying cars?”

For nearly all of human history, there have been people who looked to the future with an almost utopic fervor. Too often they’ve foreseen it as an earthly nirvana, where dirt, crime and social ills fall away, unable to adhere to its highly polished non-stick surface.

But somehow it hasn’t seemed to work out that way. Most people’s perception of our present is that it’s pretty much like our past, save for a few new gadgets and a few different problems. The future hasn’t been the universally transformative event many had hoped for.

So what happened? I think author William Gibson succinctly answered the question when he said, “The future is already here. It just isn’t evenly distributed.” With that pithy observation, Gibson summed up the entire issue. It’s here, it just isn’t everywhere. Yet.

The reality is we’re already capable of some pretty amazing things, stuff that belonged to the future not all that long ago. We’ve put a dozen men on the moon and maintained a significant presence in space for nearly four decades. We can sequence a person’s complete genome. We’ve created humanoid robots that are improving by literal leaps and bounds. We even have flying cars. So why aren’t these wonders more common, more available? Well, economics is certainly one significant factor. Given enough effort, we probably could have had a moon colony by now, but what a price tag! Likewise, domed cities, yet to what real purpose? Flying cars? Even if you get past the costs, you’re in a vehicle where even a minor failure is catastrophic. Combine the potentially high death-to-accident ratio with regulatory issues, astronomical insurance costs, the nightmare of air traffic control and the fact few of us have the necessary three-dimensional spatial skills and it’s doubtful we’ll see too many of these babies zipping across our skies anytime soon.

But there are many developing technologies that will almost certainly be embraced in the not-so-distant future, first by the wealthy, then over time by the rest of us. Biotech wonder drugs tailored to our unique DNA. Space tourism. Nanocomputers embedded in our clothing and throughout the environment. Artificial organs which our bodies won’t reject because they’re created from our own cells. Robot assistants to aide us in various tasks, hopefully minus the maid uniforms.

Technology adoption is also a question of inertia. Civic. Social. Political. Psychological. We don’t want to tear out all of the buildings and transportation infrastructure every quarter century just because there are newer, perhaps better ways to construct them. So we end up with 21st Century buildings set amidst 20th Century structures, maybe with a number of 19th Century ones scattered around and so on. Which is a good thing because it gives us continuity and makes us feel better psychologically. While parts of our minds have come to crave change, for other aspects continuity equals security. (Or inversely, change equals threat.) So we carry on moving forward along our timeline, letting the new mix in with the old, hanging onto legacy systems, products and methods, either because of cost, convenience or sentimentality.

So how do we get to a more evenly distributed future? We give it time to merge with the present, at which point, of course, it’s not the future anymore. A little over a century ago, no one had electricity or a telephone. It took decades before a quarter of the populace had these scientific marvels. Cell phones took a fraction of that time to reach a similar level of market saturation. Now there are nearly five billion cell phones in the world, which is fast approaching one hundred percent saturation. Put another way, there are tribal nomads walking around today with far more computer processing power and digital storage in their pocket than was on board the Apollo command modules. That’s a very thoroughly distributed technology.

Today’s present has so many wonders that yesterday’s present couldn’t even dream of: vaccines that have all but eradicated many lethal illnesses; vehicles that hurl us around the globe quickly and in comfort; buildings that soar high into the clouds; instant communication with anyone, anywhere, anytime; the sum of human knowledge available at our fingertips.

Make no mistake, the future’s here and it will be with you shortly. But by that time, it will be your present overlaid onto your past. Which, of course, was once someone else’s future. So just be patient.

And don’t expect the skies to be filled with flying cars anytime soon.

Who Will Watch the Watchers?

Technological advances bring all sorts of change to our world. Such change often brings with it the need for new rules and legislation. The trick is in establishing laws that create a level playing field – one which can provide us adequate protection without putting a stranglehold on new developments. For many generations, we’ve looked to our institutions for such regulation and protection. But as the pace of change quickens, these same institutions are quickly falling behind. In many respects, it can even be argued that they’re starting to generate more problems than they’re resolving.

A recent article in The Economist (“Why the rules on copyright need to return to their roots”) recaps the original intent of copyright law as a means of balancing “the incentive to create with the interest that society has in free access to knowledge and art”. But changes over the last fifty years have dramatically increased the period of copyright protection, significantly shifting this balance. Increasing the length of copyright doesn’t encourage the creation of new work, but rather it limits its “dissemination, impact and influence.” This has contributed to a business model that is far more interested in profit than the creation of art and or the fostering of knowledge. As a result, today we have individuals receiving excessive fines for DRM violations and onerous battles over what is and isn’t fair use or in the public domain. This was hardly the original intent when the concept of copyright was established.

Location of the BRCA1 gene on chromosome 17.
Location of the BRCA1 gene on chromosome 17.

The patent process is dealing with similar shortcomings that have even more serious repercussions for the public good. For nearly thirty years, human genes have been considered patentable based on nothing more than their isolation and identification. This locking up of something that is so obviously a part of our natural world should never have been allowed to happen. Awarding these patents has hogtied research, slowing advancement in fields that have directly impacted an untold number of lives. The striking down of patents on two genes by a federal judge in March will hopefully open the floodgates and lead to the challenging of thousands more human gene patents. The two genes in question in this recent case, BRCA1 and BRCA2, are closely associated with breast and ovarian cancers. The idea that women have died because of legal wranglings over these genes is repellent.

In the summer of 2008, the world saw the beginning of a massive financial crisis. The exact details are still being uncovered, but it’s evident that much of the blame can be laid at the systematic deregulation that occurred in the US over the prior decade. The institutions responsible for this loosening did not give adequate consideration to the relationships and interdependencies between the different players, not to mention the increasingly automated, electronic trading made possible by the internet.

On a slightly more amusing, yet no less frightening note, a post in the Wall Street Journal Law Blog this week, describes a few gaps in the technical grasp of some of our Supreme Court Justices. In the course of a current constitutional rights case, Justices had to inquire about the difference between “email and a pager” and whether a text sent to someone in the midst of sending to someone else would get through. “Does it say: ‘Your call is important to us, and we will get back to you?’” one Justice asked. Another had difficulty with the concept of a service provider, asking “You mean the text doesn’t go right to me?” For a body hearing cases that will increasingly be dependent on technical knowledge, such a lack of basic understanding is very disturbing.

Whether we’re talking about copyright law, gene patents or financial regulation, the point I’m trying to make is this: In these accelerating times, our institutions, our courts, our regulatory bodies need to become as nimble, informed and responsive as the industries and technologies they seek to govern. So what can we do to ensure that they’re up to the challenge?

The Age of the Interface

My latest article “The Age of the Interface” is the cover story for the May/June issue of The Futurist which is out this week.


A properly designed and implemented interface not only facilitates system-to-system communication, but it also simplifies and automates control of otherwise complex functions. Interfaces let us operate on things that we can’t otherwise deal with and peer into regions where we couldn’t otherwise see. From steering aircraft carriers to moving atoms with atomic force microscopes, interfaces rescale our actions. They translate digital signals and invisible radiation into media that are readily accessible to our senses. In essence, they become our eyes, ears, hands, and even extensions of our minds.

As astounding and varied as our interfaces are today, they’re on track to become much more so in the near future. Under development now are a range of new methods for interacting with our devices in ways that would have been inconceivable only a few years ago. With so many advances now on the horizon, we may someday look back on this period as the Golden Age of the Interface.

This article grew out of some of my observations about the profusion of interfaces that are currently under development. Some of these will be coming onto the market this year, others five to ten years from now. Overall, the trend is toward more natural ways of interfacing with one (or more) of our senses and an increasingly immediate integration with our bodies.

I’m very pleased with how the article turned out and welcome your responses and critiques.

The Intelligence Revolution (Part 2)

The Four Rs: Changing Jobs in a Changing World


The Intelligence Revolution will transform many aspects of our lives, but few as radically as work and employment.

By its very nature, progress is disruptive. Technological advances lead to the development of new markets and the withering away of old ones. They generate new laws and regulations. In the most extreme cases, they can even threaten our existence as a species. But of all of these changes, none touches us more personally and immediately than the those that affect our jobs.

Work puts a roof over our heads and food on our table. It makes it possible to provide for our family. If we’re fortunate, it contributes to our sense of purpose and identity.

But if change is disruptive, how much more upheaval will we see in coming years as the world undergoes accelerating change? The rate of technological advancement has been slowly increasing for many centuries, but only recently has it reached a point where we’re aware of it on practically a day-to-day basis. Every week, there are new breakthroughs and devices that will alter some aspect of our lives. This trend shows few signs of letting up. If anything, the increasing intelligence of our tools is only going to accelerate the rate of change further.

For generations, it was typical to perform the same trade as our parents and their parents before them and so on. In the middle of the 20th Century, many people worked for a single company throughout their entire career. By the end of the century, this had become far less common.

According to a longitudinal survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics released in 2008, younger baby boomers held an average of 10.8 jobs between the ages of 18 and 42. (The Bureau doesn’t define or track career changes, contrary to a commonly quoted statistic about its frequency. Nevertheless, a general trend can still be extrapolated from the jobs numbers.) If much of this shift in job security is due to technological progress and the rate of that progress continues to accelerate, what will it mean for all workers and the society they support in the years ahead?

In the face of such change, we have little choice but to adapt. Attempting to hold on to older, less efficient work methods has failed since before the Luddites tried to sabotage mechanized looms in the early 1800s. The ability to produce more efficiently almost always results in increased productivity which lowers real prices. This is a difficult incentive to fight despite the upheaval it often brings.

Adapting to a rapidly changing world means shifting how we look at careers, identity and education. More and more, it’s going to become necessary to re-invent ourselves, matching our strengths and skill sets to the changing marketplace. With this new path identified, we’ll need to re-educate ourselves to prepare for work in new and changing fields. Over time, we’ll rebuild our careers, combining prior experience with our more recently acquired skills. Then, as technology and the fields it creates and supports continue to advance, the cycle will repeat and it will be necessary to do it all over again.

For many of us, adopting these Four Rs will feel very foreign, even threatening. Embracing change is not typically in our nature. But adapting to it is. The world we live and work in is being transformed whether we want it or not. As with all sea changes, we have a choice. We can swim with the tide or be overwhelmed by it.

Affordable higher education that continues throughout our lifetimes will be essential to making this possible. Likewise, regular career counseling. These will be necessary if we’re to maintain a work force that can support the many high tech fields that are sure to arise in the coming decades. The health of our entire economy depends on the right approach.

Progress is accelerating, changing the world before our eyes. It will bring many challenges, but with it many opportunities as well. To thrive in this rapidly changing world, we’ll need to recognize that our working lives will be changing as rapidly as everything else. The Four Rs may be one way we can adapt to an accelerating future.

    Re-Invent.
    Re-Educate.
    Re-Build.
    Repeat.

Data mining for treasure


When I talk about the intelligent future, I’m referring to far more than just artificial intelligence and intelligence amplification. The application of existing knowledge and tools in new and innovative ways will play just as much a role. One excellent example can be found in a paper published yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In “MiDReG: A method of mining developmentally regulated genes using Boolean implications”, Stanford University computer scientist,
Debashis Sahoo describes a computational method for bioinformatic data mining that may have a tremendous impact in biotech and the health sciences.

The method uses Boolean logic to identify genes having specific relationships and expressions in fractions of a second. Such identification can take years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars using existing laboratory techniques. Still another benefit of this computational approach is that it can be used to mine existing databases.

This is a perfect example of how the convergence of informational technologies leads to accelerating progress. I would expect Sahoo’s method to radically increase our understanding of many genetic processes. I think this and other computational methods are likely to yield significant discoveries in cancer and aging research during the coming decade.

Advances in AI

A number of recent stories illustrate the rapid progress that’s being made in many different fields linked to artificial intelligence:

Europe’s four-year AMARSi project (Adaptive Modular Architecture for Rich Motor Skills) could lead to humanoid robots that quickly acquire skills from human co-workers as well as their environments.
AMARSi project could see robots learn from co-workers

Also from Europe is HUMAVIPS (Humanoids with Auditory and Visual Abilities in Populated Spaces) which seeks to improve the ways humans and robots communicate and interact.
Humanoid robots to gain advanced social skills

A research team at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor has demonstrated how memristors can mimic the behavior of brain synapses.
Electronics ‘missing link’ brings neural computing closer

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