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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

The Intelligence Revolution (Part 1)

In the intelligent future, positions, roles, entire fields will disappear from the jobs market. In many cases, the tasks themselves will still exist but increasingly they’ll be done by evermore intelligent technologies instead of by humans. As in the past, these changes will be motivated by market forces and the ongoing incentive to improve efficiency and productivity. And like the Digital Revolution and the Industrial Revolution before it, the Intelligence Revolution will transform the jobs landscape for still another reason. Because it will lead to increasingly rapid innovation and product creation.

In the past, machines have eliminated jobs because they could be designed to be faster, stronger and more tireless than their flesh and blood counterparts. During the Industrial Revolution, this meant lower skilled, often highly-repetitive labor was displaced. Spinning, weaving and sewing machines transformed the work environment. Vast numbers of trades people saw their work taken away by what would eventually become a worldwide clothing industry. Which would itself one day create millions of jobs. Likewise, unskilled manual labor. Before the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, roads and railways were built on the backs of thousands of workers. Today with the aid of machines, dozens can do the work previously performed by hundreds, if not thousands. These technologies (along with many others that came after them) built the cities, highways and factories that led to still more jobs.

The Digital Revolution had similar impacts. Office functions have seen such increases in efficiency that a single person can perform the work once performed by many. At the same time, that worker has seen a huge increase in available skills and technologies. These changes also took away a lot of jobs but led to the creation of many new ones as well. Desktop publishing, digital photography and digital video production utterly transformed their fields. At the same time these new technologies eliminated jobs, they put the ability to create mass media into the hands of an unprecedented number of people.

This antenna was created for a NASA communication satellite using evolutionary algorithms.  It was designed to be efficient, not pretty.
This antenna was created for a NASA communication satellite using evolutionary algorithms. It was designed to be efficient, not pretty.

But I suspect these examples will pale beside the changes that will be brought about by the Intelligence Revolution. Two fields that are poised to transform entire industries are those of automated invention and rapid prototyping. Using techniques such as genetic programming (algorithms that utilize fitness selection), computers are increasingly able to invent devices that are far more efficient than anything that could be created by a person. For instance, Evolutionary Antenna Synthesis is leading to better, more cost-effectively designed antennas. In another field, evolvable hardware has improved microprocessor design, creating circuits that are far denser, increasingly complex and fault-tolerant than anything that could be created by a team of unaided humans.

As they develop, 3-D printer rapid-prototyping technologies will allow us to implement these inventions and designs far faster than we ever could before. The creation of open source rapid-prototypers, such as the RepRap and MakerBot projects, will make these technologies widely available, leading to a democratization of this process as well. 3-D designs for these machines are already widely shared and distributed via the internet and the concept will likely lead to downward price pressure as these technologies become increasingly sophisticated.

All of this is leading to a sea change for job markets and how we approach our careers and education. As always, such change will have consequences both good and bad. I’ll elaborate on this further in Part 2 of this series.

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