I recently had the opportunity to speak about our connected world and the Internet of Things at Ada’s Technical Books in Seattle. Ada’s has just moved into a terrific new location on Capitol Hill and I got to be their inaugural speaker. I want to thank Danielle, Alex and all the wonderful people at the store, as well as everyone who came out to listen, for making it a great success.
“Connecting with Our Connected World” is my latest article and explores the coming era of the Internet of Things. It’s also the lead article for The Futurist magazine – my third cover story for them, which obviously I’m pleased about. While much has been written about IoT – or the Internet of Things – in recent years, this article takes a somewhat different tack.
We’re creating a world in which evermore aspects of our natural and man-made environments are becoming interconnected, capable of communicating with human operators as well as with each other. This will allow objects to keep us appraised of everything from their precise location to handling their own restocking and servicing and so much more.
However, there is a darker side to all this. For instance, issues of personal privacy and self-determism, not to mention some less well-behaved aspects of the technology:
“Once a system reaches a particular threshold of complexity, we can no longer be certain about specific cause-and-effect relationships; rather, we must think in terms of probabilities. Instead of being 100% certain that A will lead to B, we might assign a likelihood of, say, 99.98%.
For some events, this probabilistic approach works fine, but for others it could be disastrous: Power plants, automated weapons systems, and freeways full of self-driving cars all could experience catastrophes if operating on erroneous information. So these and other systems will need to be designed with greater safeguards and redundancies than they have today.”
My point is we’re at a stage in our relationship with our technology when we’ll need to start thinking in more and more nondeterministic ways. But in many respects, isn’t this how a great deal of our world has always been? So fortunately, we have lots of practice.
Good. Now that that’s out of the way, allow me to clarify. I love good technology. Jetpacks. Flying cars. Meal-in-a-pill. Not good. These won’t fly (some of them literally) because they don’t meet all of the criteria of good technology.
Consider that in order to move all the way from concept to prototype to marketable product, every idea has to pass through a succession of filters. Is the idea possible within the laws of physics as they’re currently understood? Then forget retro-causality (time machines), perpetual motion, faster than light travel/communication, etc. Do our existing, or soon to be existing, engineering capabilities, materials, tolerances, etc., allow us to realize the idea or will it remain on the drawing board for centuries, as did Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machines or Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine? Can a need be established? That is, can consumers, corporations, or the military be convinced this is something they must have? Because without a perceived need, it will surely go the way of the Edsel.
And what of other institutions? Regulatory bodies, insurers, political organizations and others must be persuaded to support or at least tolerate and accept the new tech. And ultimately is this an idea that is right for its time? An invention must fit within the established mores, accepted behaviors and realities of user understanding and functionality. Without all of these, the idea will die stillborn. Given all this, it may seem a miracle any new tech ever comes to life and gets the opportunity to walk the earth, even if only for a few years.
So all this said, I’m going to forecast that the revisited concept of a wrist-worn computer in the form of a smartwatch, be it an iWatch, a Pebble, or what have you, will be very short-lived. Don’t get me wrong. These are going to be pushed into the market because so many corporations have jumped on the bandwagon and they all smell profit. But really, most of this Dick Tracy, two-way radio concept was technologically feasible over a decade ago. That’s when these companies should’ve been pushing it. Not now, just when all manner of head mounted displays (HMDs), such as Google Glass are just coming to market.
Think about it: Why would anyone want to obviously look down at their wrist instead of surreptitiously glancing at an eye level monitor? Why obliterate your view and call attention to yourself when snapping a picture, when you could do it by subtly turning your head and issuing an eye-tracked command or vocal instruction – and soon a subvocal one? Why pass up the ability to have virtual images and data superimposed over the real world as augmented reality comes online? And WHY would you want to squint at an image so small it can fit on your wrist (or else be encumbered by an oversized wearable), when considerably better, larger display interfaces will be available? Short of projecting an image (creating all kinds of stabilization challenges), watches will remain limited in their usable display size, because of our eyes’ typical minimum focusing distance. In the meantime, HMDs, retinal displays, and in the next decade, active contact lenses, will provide ever-larger, more immersive display experiences.
Of course, HMDs will have their own challenges. We can’t ignore that for a time, there will be some resistance to the new headware. There are always those who reject the new because they feel threatened by it’s arrival. It’s natural and at times it may even be appropriate. But this isn’t one of those times. Turning to inferior technologies and interfaces is rarely a winning strategy. Ignoring the future never is.
Thursday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling against the patenting of natural genes is a major milestone in patent law and has significant implications for the future of technology. For many years now, the U.S. Patent Office has allowed the patenting of natural genes, perhaps most famously the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes which were patented by Myriad Genetics. This resulted in tests for mutations of these genes remaining exclusive to Myriad. It also kept them unnecessarily expensive – on the order of $3,000 per test. Because mutations in these two genes greatly increase the risk of breast and ovarian cancers, such tests are a valuable tool for identifying at-risk women. But the high cost prevented many from having the test, particularly within the U.S. health care system.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that natural genes can not be patented, saying it manifestly violates patent rules. Put simply, laws of nature, physical phenomena and abstract ideas are not patentable.
The victory is somewhat pyrrhic in that the patents for BRCA1 and BRCA2, which were filed in 1994 and 1995, will expire in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Had this decision been handed down years ago, one wonders how many lives might have been saved?
Nevertheless, this ruling has significant value looking ahead, and not only for genetics. There’s a wealth of knowledge waiting to be gained from the natural world. This knowledge will lead to significant innovations, but in the face of incorrectly interpreted patent protection, such innovation could be tremendously stifled. The natural world is a nearly boundless legacy that has been left to all of us; it would be the worst kind of injustice to have it benefit only an exclusive few. The ability to patent methods which are applied to natural genes and other natural processes will still exist. The development of synthetic DNA (cDNA)* and processes such as cloning will also still be patentable. Similarly, discoveries relevant to other fields such as nanotechnology and material science will be patentable in so far as they involve new methods and processes. But simply identifying and patenting natural phenomena will be out of bounds.
It’s important to remember that as well as granting patents for the protection of inventions, the Patent Office exists to “promote the industrial and technological progress of the nation and strengthen the economy.” This is only right in that it’s a public institution. Unfortunately, today’s ruling demonstrates the difficulty our institutions have, and will continue to have, in dealing with a rapidly changing world.
Certainly there are those who won’t be happy about today’s Supreme Court decision. But despite the changes it brings, innovators will still have plenty of intellectual property to protect and profit by. In the end, all humanity deserves to benefit from the world that gave us life and made all of this possible in the first place.
As our world becomes increasingly filled with technological intelligence, it will serve us well to know exactly how smart our machines are and in what ways. Given that we try to measure almost every other aspect of our world, it seems only prudent that we accurately measure the intelligence of our machines as well — especially since, by some projections, they’re expected to surpass us in the coming decades.
During the next few decades we’re going to see significant gains in the field of strong AI, potentially giving rise to artificial general intelligences (AGIs). Universal Intelligence tests such as those described here would seem a crucial tool as we prepare for the changes this will bring.
With the arrival of the 2012 Olympic Games, we find ourselves focused on the extremes of human performance. For seventeen days, the world’s finest athletes will compete at the limits of strength, speed and endurance. Many observers have speculated that for a number of these competitions, we may well be reaching the limits of what is humanly possible. After all, the mind and body can only be pushed so far. Already competitors are using myriad techniques to maximize their performance, some accepted, others proscribed. But if we want to continue to see records broken and barriers overcome, it may be only a matter of time before we begin to look to the potential of human enhancement.
It’s a conundrum. On the one hand, purists want to eliminate anything deemed to be an unfair, unnatural advantage. Steroids, human growth hormone, EPO, which stimulates the formation of red blood cells, all of these have been banned. On the other hand, one of the attractions of the Olympics is the opportunity to witness limits being surpassed and records being broken. To see someone accomplish a feat never before achieved. What happens to the Olympics when the ultimate limits have been reached? What happens when the last record has been broken?
Human enhancement, or augmentation, is in its very nascent stages. With the rare exception of sprinter Oscar Pistorius, it’s certainly not yet ready for Olympic prime time. Prosthetics, gene therapy, nanomedicine – much of what falls into this category is still theoretical or, at best, replacement rather than enhancement technology. Especially when gauged against the performance of an uber athlete.
But as we well know, technology continues to advance at a pace orders of magnitude faster than evolution-driven biology. In short, it’s only a matter of time before truly enhanced humans exist, capable of outperforming even the best of unmodified athletes.
Of course, these enhanced players, cyborgs, cyber-athletes, or whatever else they’ll be called, will want to participate too. After all, they’ll still be human beings with the same need to compete, the same desire for glory. Will they be allowed into the Olympics? Probably not. At least not at first anyway.
So they’ll compete in their own version – call it the Extreme Olympics or the New Games, if you will. Certainly the demand will be there. With fewer and fewer records being broken by natural athletes, how could the public not flock to see how much further our limits might be pushed? On top of this, new competitions will invariably be conceived. Speed wall crawling or underwater marathons, perhaps. They’ll be novel, they’ll be exciting and they’ll be very, very popular.
Of course, the Classic Olympics would remain – a paean to the purity of its origins. An homage to our pre-technological roots. But while Classic will continue to attract a devoted, if dwindling number of fans, the New Games will become the real draw for both spectators and the media. This will be where the money is. This will be the future of the Olympics because ultimately, this will be the future of humankind.