Future Technologies with Sir Tim Berners Lee, Stephen Fry and more

The Royal Society are currently celebrating their 350th anniversary with a series of events under the See Further banner.

Last night, I attended a panel session entitled Future Technologies featuring

So, a very esteemed panel and a very educational session.

This was also the first session I’ve attended with a (moderated) Twitterfall running on a screen in the background. While this meant there was no danahboyd style sniping , it didn’t provide much value and was primarily an annoying distraction

While the panel were prompted with a series of questions, the speakers invariably went off on tangents. At times, this made it difficult to keep up with the gist of the arguments (if indeed there were points being made) but I did jot down plenty of interesting things. Perhaps inevitably, Stephen Fry and Tim Berners-Lee did most of the talking, but I’ve jotted down at least one thing from each of the speakers (Wendy Hall and Bill Thompson chaired parts of it, hence the relative lack of quotes from them).

Note that I am paraphrasing, and they aren’t verbatim quotes.

I also apologise for my interchanging of the terms web and internet. I know they are different, but I’m never entirely certain which is correct in which circumstance.

Future technologies

Stephen Fry – We are often made a fool of by the future. But it is not the science that surprises us but the humanity – how we humans respond to the science.

Jim Haseloff – Biological systems are increasingly being seen as information processing systems, with recognition of the discrete parts

Tim Berners Lee – there is so much data that we are now moving from one person retaining all of the information to it being shared among a group. We therefore need democratising technology to help us work together collectively. This in turn could help democracy work better

Technology and tipping points

Stephen Fry – Twitter is banal and foolish… Naturally, I gravitated towards it

Stephen Fry – The press feel threatened by Twitter as celebrities can now go and do their own press. Why should Ashton Kutcher or Demi Moore use a press agent when they can talk directly to four million people? (Incidentally, he views this lift incident as a tipping point for Twitter)

Stephen Fry – The most important debate at the moment is the tension between openness and privacy

Bill Thompson – In the early 1980s IBM computers were priced at such a point that middle managers were able to buy then without seeking corporate approval. They were able to undermine the mainframe and information services department, providing them with new tools and a choice

The internet for everyone

Stephen Fry – we are facing a same problem with a digital underclass as we did with a literary underclass one hundred years ago

Tim Berners-Lee – The internet isn’t more important than vaccinations in Africa, but they can work together in interesting ways

Tim Berners-Lee – It is more important for the internet to be ubiquitous than it is to be fast

Bill Thompson – we need to prepare ourselves for the ways in which the 80% of those not currently online will try to use the internet

Tim Berners-Lee – Once a computer is connected to the web, it is as important as any other computer in the network, whether it is at MIT or somewhere in Africa

Evolution of technology

Stephen Fry – We can’t deduce from an invention how people will use it. From a person experimenting with pistons we get a car, huge highways, London’s one way transport system and Top Gear

Jim Haseloff – We have an emotional attachment to “natural crops” but these have still evolved due to our behaviour and involvement. Our crops are just domesticated weeds.

Tim Berners-Lee – The internet removes our geographic constraints. Does this mean we can meet a greater variety of people, to open up society, and produce greater peace and harmony

Society and culture

Tim Berners-Lee – Freedom and freedom of speech online raises questions about society, not technology

Stephen Fry – We are walking masses of metadata. We plug ourselves in and react. Software then deduces our intentions without the need of us to state them

Jim Haseloff – The internet will encourage diversity, not monoculture. However, it can introduce more volatility since consensus, and thus change, is reached quicker

Stephen Fry – (Rubbishing Nicholas Carr’s thesis on changing neuropathy in The Shallows) This current generation is more literate and more confident in what it wants to say than that of one hundred years ago. Who cares if they don’t always put the apostrophes in the right places. Language pedants are only trying to prove that they have received a good education.

Stephen Fry – The first thing I thought when I opened up my iPhone 4 (and saw the front facing camera) was that this will be great for prostitutes

Stephen Fry – We talk about systems but we are in them. We talk about humanity but we are human. We can’t perfectly design a system and the web will be like us – disgusting but lovable.

The future

Wendy Hall – I’d like a teletransporter, but I’d be worried about 404 errors

Tim Berners-Lee – The most important thing for the future of the web is something I can’t imagine. It is open and for everyone; it wasn’t designed by me for me.

sk

Image credits: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dgjones/3265964293/ and http://www.flickr.com/photos/hyoga/881424158/

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Harold Evans on the Spirit of Innovation

Sir Harold Evans at the Strand Bookstore in Ne...

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Earlier today I attended a lecture at the Royal Society of Arts given by Sir Harold Evans entitled “The Spirit of Innovation”. During an extremely distinguished career, Evans has been, among other things, Editor of both The Times and Sunday Times (of London), Publisher of Random House and an author of several acclaimed books.

This lecture was chaired by Ralph Simon, co-founder of Zomba records and Moviso.

Click through here for links to the audio and video of the event.

In the lecture, Evans covered similar issues to those I’ve been reading about as part of my course, some of which I blogged about yesterday.

The crux of the lecture was the important difference between invention and innovation. Evans defines innovation as bringing an invention to use (i.e. commercialising it). He says that a scientist will have understanding, an inventor will have a solution but an innovator will have a universal solution.

An invention without innovation is a past-time. Essentially, many inventors are hobbyists, since an MIT study has shown that fewer than 10% of patents granted have had any commercial application.

Evans says that few scientists are able to turn ideas into a commercial impact. And historically, Britain has been very good at inventing but terrible at innovating. Coinciding with Channel 4’s broadcast of a series entitled Genius of Britain, focusing upon British scientific achievements from the past 350 years, Evans cited some of the great British inventions as

  • The electronic computer
  • The radar
  • Penicillin
  • The incandescent light
  • The microchip

However, British society failed to exploit these inventions, and they were ultimately superseded by American innovations that took the fame and fortune. Indeed, Evans mentioned that many Americans think Henry Ford invented the motor car.

Evans blames a fascination with the myth of the Eureka moment. Rather than a spark of genius, innovation requires active invention and improvement.This often means that investors overestimate the pace and underestimate the capital requirements of development, meaning that an inventor needs to have commercial acumen to succeed.

For instance, Edison was prone to self-mythologising about incandescent light bulbs, when in fact he had meticulously ran over 3,000 experiments. And then he had to convince people to use it, which effectively required a new electrical grid. Evans quotes Steve Wozniak as saying that getting an invention to marketplace is as important as the product itself.

Additional reasons for Britain’s relative failure include

  • Lacking the scale of big American companies in a big market protected by high tariffs and the Defence Department
  • Systemic opposition within Britain to both mergers and democratising ideas
  • Trade Unions – which Evans characterises as anti-meritocratic bodies looking to protect the status quo irrespective of change
  • Research and Development not being collaborative and systemic, unlike in America where people get to stand on the shoulders of giants.

However, Evans says that America is now struggling under its own weight. Bureaucracy and corporatisation are stifling innovation. Evans effectively championed bootstrapping when saying creative people should move away from bureaucracy to agile experimentation.

It was also mentioned at Israel is second only to Silicon Valley in the number of patents produced, and has more companies on NASDAQ than the entire EU. Evans believes this is down to a faith in technology to push things further, perhaps influenced by the compulsory national service Israeli citizens undergo.

The lecture was followed by a bizarre and disappointing question and answer session. There was only time for a few questions from the audience, due to Simon’s ludicrous format. Armed with a trusty PowerPoint slide, he read out several different forms of innovation, prompting Evans to recite rambling anecdotes tenuously linked to the topic. Simon then revealed a second PowerPoint slide, containing questions that Evans had largely answered in his lecture. Simon seemed unable to deviate from his format, and the session sadly petered out.

However, Evans’ final thought from his lecture has stuck with me. Genius is not enough; you need to go and do something.

sk

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Mark Earls – From “me” to “we”

Thanks to Mat kindly donating his ticket, I was able to go and see Mark Earls give a seminar entitled From “me” to “we” at the Royal Society.

herd by mark earlsRather shamefully, I am still yet to read Herd – the book (and associated research) on which the talk was based. This is despite regularly reading the Herd blog and even having a copy in the Essential library. As I said, shameful.

Despite this, I think I was the target audience. Along with a Q&A only notable for the rather aggressive questioning of a lady accusing Mark of ignoring “the female perspective”,  the session offered a fairly gentle precis of the book’s central theory which, if I had read it, I would of course have been familiar with.

The talk

A tenet of the book is that we’re bad at changing other people’s behaviour. To highlight this, Mark recalled a few statistics from his research:

  • Only 10% of new products survive longer than 12 months
  • Only 30% of change management programmes begin to achieve their aims
  • Mergers & Acquisitions lessen shareholder value two thirds of the time
  • No government initiative has created demonstrable and sustainable change

This is particularly worrying because behavioural change comes before attitude change – our thinking comes after the fact. We (post)rationalise rather than act rationally.

Therefore, in order to change attitudes, we need to change behaviour. And to be able to do this, we need to understand who we are. Only then can we can create solutions that work.

The Herd thesis draws upon the Asian culture of believing that humans are naturally social. We are fundamentally social with only a bit of independence, not vice versa.

Although it doesn’t sound particularly controversial, this thinking does run contrary to some well established tenets of both marketing and social theory.

According to Mark, thinking is much less important in human life than it seems. He likens us and thinking to a cat in water – we can do it if we have to, but we don’t particularly like it.

This is because it is easier to follow than think. We know our judgement is fallible and so we outsource the decision by following the crowd. But while this may work in some situations – many illustrated by James Surowieki – it is also arguably a contributing factor to the financial crisis, as financial institutions copied one another without comprehending the implications.

We therefore need to design our theories and tools to accommodate this social behaviour. It is much more rewarding to understand how social norms are created and perpetuated than it is to work on the assumption of cogito ergo sum.

Some initial thoughts

While brief, the talk certainly conveyed the need for me to read the book fully. Perhaps then some of my questions regarding the theory will be answered.

In particular, I’m interested in knowing where movements originate and whether this herd behaviour can be predicted.

For all the sheep, there must be a shepherd somewhere. Are these shepherds always designated as such – the almost mythical influentials – or do we alternate between thinking and following?

Rarely are our choices as clear cut as choosing whether to join the corner of the party where people are talking rather than the one where people are sitting in silence. Instead we have multiple choices and herds – how do we choose?

Is it a level of proximity? In the Battle of Britpop, Northerners sided with Oasis and Southerners with Blur? However, I’m from the Midlands, so was my choice one of the rare occurrences of rational choice (which would make a rather unconvincing deus ex machina) or is it purely random?

If random, then the work of Duncan Watts becomes pertinent. His modelling has suggested that in situations where groups vote up and down their favourite songs, there is no objective winner. Different simulations create different patterns. Purely random.

This creates difficulties for researchers as we like our statistical certainty. We like to have a set answer that we can post-hoc explain given the evidence. Duncan Watts’ research would suggest that research tools that build in mass opinion – such as crowdsourced tagging or wikis – are effectively meaningless. Rather than ultimately deviate towards a “correct” answer, they simply reflect the random order of participation and interaction.

Can mass behaviour be effectively incorporated into a research programme? I’ll report back with some thoughts once I’ve read the book

sk

We’re bad at changing other people’s behaviour

Only 10% of new products survive longer than 12 months

30% of change management programmes begin to achieve their aims

Mergers & Acquisitions lessen shareholder value 2/3 of time (pwc)

No government initiative has created demonstrable and sustainable change

Behavioural change comes before attitude change – thinking comes after the fact

In order to change attitudes, change behaviour

We need to understand who we are so we can create solutions

More rationalising than rational

Cognitive outsourcing – memory is a distributed function so only remember slivers

We are fundamentally social with a bit of independence, not vice versa

Asian culture is inherently social

Gandhi said that humans are a necessarily interconnected species

Thinking is much less important in human life than it seems

“lazy mind hypothesis”

We can think independently, we just don’t like it – like a cat to water

Behave according to other people’s actions e.g. go to busy shops

We know our own judgement is fallible so “I’ll have what she’s having” – wisdom of crowds or financial crisis

Leads to social norms

Need to design our theories and tools to accommodate social behaviour

Genesis random – Duncan watts

Is it proximity that leads us to follow a herd, or example of using rationally weighing up the pros and cons

Herds originate from somewhere – must be a leader. Are these leaders the same in each situation, or are we all capable of being shepherds

Research application – crowdsource answers. But random – no statistical certainty as only one situation

Wikis to collate group opinion?

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Sir Ken Robinson on how finding your passion changes everything

I may not be at TED, but in the past few days I’ve had the pleasure of seeing two of the finest speakers to grace past events lecture in London. Following on from Clay Shirky at POLIS on Tuesday, Sir Ken Robinson spoke at the Royal Society yesterday on the subject of his new book – The Element. The event forms part of the RSA’s excellent series of debates on culture, politics and society that occur every Thursday lunchtime.

The core idea of the book is that most adults have no idea of their true talents, nor what they are capable of achieving. Some people go along in life with no sense of fulfilment, but people tend to do their best when they do something they love.

To be in one’s element, one needs to have a natural aptitude. Robinson provided one of his many great anecdotes to illustrate this – many of which are included in the book as interviews or case studies. Terence Tao, Professor of Maths at UCLA taught himself to read at age 2; passed a college entrance exam aged 8; finished his PhD aged 20 and was awarded the Field Medal (Nobel equivalent) aged 30. Safe to say he has a maths brain.

But being naturally good at something is not enough; someone also has to love it. If I’m good at maths but don’t like it, I shouldn’t continue just to meet people’s expectations. I should take part in what resonates with me most fully.

So rather than being about creativity, the book is about celebrating the diversity and multiplicity of talent. Sir Ken then reiterated the nebulous effect of the education system on encouraging this diversity. He believes – and I agree – that the distinction between academic and vocational education is a dreadful mistake. A story about a fireman who at school had been told he wouldn’t amount to anything then saving the life of that teacher proved this point quite nicely.

One of the arguments running through the book is that this “element” is necessary for human fulfilment as it is an essential part of knowing who we are. Bart Conner – the most decorated athlete in US gymnastic history – and his wife Nadia Comaneci now devote their lives to developing gymnasts in the Special Olympics, for instance. Conner’s mother encouraged his talents; and his talents then created opportunities. This is because our lives are not linear but organic. Education, on the other hand, is predicated on linearity. Robinson highlighted a recent LA policy paper “College begins at Kindergarten” to back up this point. Education should not be a mechanistic process but about creating a success that is synergistic with the environment.

He also pointed out several similarities in the “critical and severe” crises in both natural resources and human resources. Both line industry, serve massive commercial interests (e.g. the “false epidemic” of ADHD) and are often buried deep. Given that the old economic model has failed, now would appear an excellent time to instil community development based on diversity and not conformity.

The lecture closed with Sir Ken saying that at a basic level, education is about personal growth, it is part of the culture (and therefore needs cultural development) and is about economics. The book is a different conception of human possibility and an appeal to aim high.

After the speech (which was excellent), Matthew Taylor asked a couple of questions – one pertaining to the role that ethics and responsibility play in creativity. Robinson defines creativity as “the process of having original ideas that create value”. He re-iterated that it is a process and not a random act of inspiration, and that it needs to prove its worth. The financial crisis was not due to creativity but because people were not being critical and evaluating the usefulness of their ideas. He also pointed out that creativity isn’t the opposite to formality – instead a mixture of discipline and space to innovate are required (e.g. you have to learn an instrument before you can become creative).

Another question went back to the academic and vocational divide. Unfortunately people default to the way that they were educated – it may have worked for them because they are now in a position to make decisions, but it didn’t necessarily work for others. It is not just enough to know the discipline (and some policymakers may not even get that far) but about understanding the environment – great education needs great teachers. A video promo for The Blue School – set up by the Blue Man Group – was then played to show how learning and creativity can be encouraged within school.

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/eschipul/

See Sir Ken Robinson speak

For those that live in or near London, I sincerely recommend signing up for the talk Sir Ken Robinson is giving at the Royal Society on the 5th February.

It is a free event and forms part of the excellent RSA Thursday series of lectures and seminars. Sir Ken will be sharing thinking from his new book – The Element – the point at which natural talent meets personal passion.

I have signed up and recommend you doing so by going here.

For those unable to make it, instead I suggest you either watch or re-watch his classic TED Talk from 2006 – Do Schools Kill Creativity? Follow the link to download audio or video and participate in the discussion, or watch the embedded Youtube video below.

The 20 minute speech justifiable won a standing ovation (not bad when you are sharing a stage with a former Vice President and the man that invented the Internet).

Some of the points he makes in his talk include

  • “It is education that is meant to take us into this future that we cannot grasp”
  • “Creativity is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status”
  • “Kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go”
  • “If you are not prepared to be wrong then you will never come up with anything original”
  • “The whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance”

He is both hilarious and insightful when he talks about creativity and intelligence (diverse, dynamic and distinct), and he ends with an inspirational anecdote on the nature of success.

You will be hard-pressed to find a better way to spend twenty minutes online than watch the video, and I’m confident that the upcoming talk will prove to be just as worthwhile.

sk

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