Last weekend, I made my way for the first time to the Royal Geographical Society for the second day of the IQ2 If… conference
. The day at times felt like speed dating the future. With a total of 20 talks in the single day I attended, there was a lot of information to take in. Some was of more interest to me than others, but it felt like there was a broad spectrum of interpretations of the future, and ideas ranging from completion in the next few months, to ones which may still seem far off in 100 years. Instead of going through each talk, and summarising it, in the following post I will cherry pick the ones I found most interesting and my take on them.
The second talk of the day was by Adriana Lukas, and was entitled ‘Self Hacking’. Quite a provocative title, I was interested to hear what interpretation Lukas would take. Rather than any form of physical or ‘hard hacking’ Lukas’ talk described the idea of “personal infomatics”. This is the idea of collecting ones personal data for the purpose of self-improvement. We consciously and unconsciously produce streams of data like airplane plumes trailing behind us in our wake. Each digital photo we take is imbued with data not only about the settings used, but about location and physical conditions, our IP addresses reveal our locations and browsing habits, debit cards our spending traits, and there are more and more devices now which explicitly create data by our demand. We track our calories eaten and burned, our data usage, and time management with various digital and physical apps. We can hardly satiate our thirst for data. We now have more control over our data too, and with the early generations of digital natives, people are now more than ever aware of data and their rights to it. But why do we measure our lives in this sense, and are we able to satisfactorily distinguish between relevant and irrelevant data?
Lukas suggested that there needs to be a new awareness of being “data-literate” as the boundaries begin to blur between types of data – personal and private, and the different audiences we are comfortable sharing different data types with. We have all herd the stories of someones personal info on their public Facebook account costing them a job or something similar, but particularly at this time when the Media Phone Hacking stories are still very prevalent, the nuances of public and private data is extremely topical. What are the data ethics?
But using data as a positive factor of our digital lives, how can I benefit from this constant torrent of info? Using infographics as an example of how data is often utilised today, Lukas proposed that most of these were quite useless really, and didn’t offer any real benefit to the viewer (This reminds me of one particular discussion at last weeks Design-Science debate – see previous post). Lukas instead offers that for these formations of data to be really useful, there needs to be some type of positive feedback mechanism. Something to allow the viewer to interact with the data in a more meaningful sense – altering the inputs and then seeing the corresponding result.
With the computing power available to us all, anyone can quickly and easily analyse data, but is this good or bad without the knowledge to underpin the analysis? And does this add or devalue raw data? When asked where she thought the future of information synthesising was going, Lukas replied “open”. As has been a common theme in many of the talks and conferences I have had/attended recently, the idea of open source keeps on coming back. Lukas says that by being so precious with all our data, it is having a very detrimental effect to a lot of public services. Using medical data as a key example, Lukas said that by being so closed with our data, we are missing a lot of potential links between cases which could lead to improvements in numerous fields. Not only in our western society, but by opening our medical data to developing countries, the benefits could be mutual.
I recently had a very interesting discussion with Piers Roberts of DesignersBlock in our shared studio space on the topic of “trickle-up innovation”. This model describes how a flat rather than top-down infrastructure can benefit both developed and developing countries. The traditional system is then rich countries like the US and UK have companies which develop products and equipment e.g. medical equipment, for western hospitals. These products can do everything that might be needed in a western hospital, and are good for western patients with health insurance or money for an NHS. But these products age, and are replaced, and gradually work there way down the chain getting to poor, rural hospitals in developing countries, and as good as they were for western hospitals, they are rubbish for the conditions and needs of developing rural hospitals.
The trickle-up system however is a different view. In this system, hospitals in developing countries can use shared knowledge on an open framework to create site specific tools and procedures. These are not necessarily of poorer quality than western tools, but instead of a machine that does everything in clinical conditions, you can produce a device that does one or two needed things in hot, humid and less than clinical conditions. The benefits and innovation of such a device can then trickle-up the system informing design in developed countries. This too is a timely idea as the economic situation mutates rapidly, and will possibly force many developed countries to rethink our economic system.
In conclusion, data is not going anywhere, and we will probably continue to accrue more and more of it, but hopefully in a more thoughtful manor. Robin Sloan summed it up well when he said, “We are all already media cyborgs.” we can no longer live without information, to so much of an extent it has almost become part of us. We use both digital and analogue media as extensions of ourselves – beyond consciousness and even death, our tweets, blogs, books, films etc live on representing us.
After a hilarious interlude by poet George Chopping, Ian Pearson took the the stage for the first of his three talks of the day. The radical futurologist opened his trio of talks with “The Future of Sleep and Dreams”.
I hadn’t herd of Pearson before, but the title of his talk sounded promising. It transpired through Pearson’s talk that he was one of the speakers looking further than most into the future. He began his presentation discussing what dreams are, and asking the question how could we influence them? Pearson’s interpretation of influencing a dream goes beyond the nightly audiotape or other traditional stimuli. The area of Pearson’s speculation was that of human-machine interaction via the nervous system. This would would prove to be the linking theme between all of Pearson’s three talks.
An interesting idea emerged from this projection into the future – the idea of products crossing not only from the physical system to nervous system, but also the conscious to the unconscious. Pearson suggested an alarm clock which knew when to wake you, and when (and more disturbingly, what) you are dreaming about.
Pearson went beyond this though and asked could we actively combine our conscious lives with our unconscious? If we were connected via our nervous system, effectively electronic pathways, could we link our dreams to our digital lives? What if your Facebook stimulated particular dreams – It already knows your friends, has photos of you and them, locations, memories etc?!
A scary thought! I think Pearson represented the far end of the spectrum as far as futurologists were concerned, and to be honest, think you had to take a lot of what he said with a pinch of salt. As a friend of mine said, “Never believe a futurologist who poses with a crystal ball…”
Tom Chatfield’s talk “Play in Immersive Virtual Worlds” brought things back to a nearer future. Chatfield suggested that play was one aspect that featured in almost all animal life to some extent, and was a universal characteristic. But asking where it’s place was for us today, he proposed that “play humanises technology”. I think that this is very true – some of the break throughs especially in technology have been the result of “playful” behaviour. Communities of enthusiasts tinkering and changing, not for any particular great calling, but for fun. The computing pioneer Alan Turing was one of the first great “players” to exhibit this. He would supposedly spend hours playing chess on the hugely expensive supercomputers he helped develop – much to the annoyance of other engineers.
Chatfield pursued this idea using the Microsoft Kinect as an example of play’s endearing potential. The technology in the kinect is amazing! Voice and body recognition, real time physics engines, surface mapping etc – but at the end of the day, the only way all this technology infiltrated our homes was through play. Many of us in the west have an aversion to technologies such as voice and face recognition as it seems too close for comfort to some form of singularity, but when presented in this fashion, we readily accept it.
Tom however echoed a point made previously by Dr Jon Rogers of Dundee. We do not live in full immersion in a virtual existence (not until Ian Pearson has his way). Even the best digital platform can never be perfect, and will always have coherency issues between formats. However, there is a platform we all share – the physical platform of the world! This is a justification for the idea of ‘physical apps’ as being promoted by Rogers. As immersive as a video game can be, it will never (as yet) be as real as the physical world. In his talk, Tom proposed that we need to take a different approach to immersive behaviour.
The fact that the iOS and Android app, Angry Birds, has now more players than “immersive” games like world of warcraft and second life says a lot about what true immersion is, and the level of emersion we want. How immersive will we get? Well to me, immersion is not about vanishing into Tron, but sensitively blurring the lines between the real world and momentary escapism.
The subject of lab grown meat was raised by Mark Post. Although not a new idea by any means, (I was almost getting sick of the topic!) Post brought some new information on the actual progress of the research. Mark’s ambition is to get a top celebrity chef to have cooked and eaten the first 100% synthetically grown hamburger in the next 6 months. Although still a way off growing something of this size as yet, Post says that cost is the only limiting factor. And at £300,000-ish for the burger, he wasn’t joking.
Post did cause me to think of a few points I hadn’t considered though. I began thinking about the implications of lab grown meat, and what it may mean for the future of animals in our society. What would their place be if animals traditionally kept for food were no longer needed for this purpose. We already have seen an increase in people keeping pigs as pets.
Post raised the question of vegetarians being able to eat lab grown meat, but you could push this further to its logical conclusion. would it become ethical or acceptable to then eat human meat if it was grown in vitro?
The interesting situation also crops up when thinking about the merging of lab grown meat and genetic engineering. What fictional animals could we get meat from? If you start with chicken cells for example, and then genetically modify them before growing the muscle, what animal’s meat really is this – no longer chicken?
Although not that new, it was good to see some work presented that was based on current work which could be impacting our lives soon.
The last talk I will comment on is Lewis Dartnell’s “Humanity’s Future in Space”. In this presentation, Dartnell took the audience through a journey of near to distant potentials for space exploration and colonisation. The death of the space shuttle marked an important time in the history of space travel, and by some, signalled the death of manned space flight and the collapse of curiosity. Lewis was not so sure. Although the shuttle will not be making the trip back into space, there are others hot on its heels. One growing alternative is that of commercial space travel. Virgin’s SpaceX is leading the way in this ambition, and you can now pay to go beyond the earth’s atmosphere. But there are many others vying to be next, and won’t be far behind.
The more interesting route to me was that of the second space race. Arguably the two most rapidly growing countries today, China and India, are embarking on a space race of their own. Whereas in the West, we often (wrongly in my opinion) look at the moon with an air of kitsch nostalgia – the symbol of a age of great technological advancements past, and a battle of the then world powers Russia and America – in the East however it is as tantalising as it ever was. And is getting closer all the time.
The conquest of the moon may be a new battle between emerging national powers, and the US and Europe as well. Lewis thinks that rather than merely getting to the moon, the next rung on the celestial ladder is the first permanent space station situated on the moon. Dartnell does not propose this as being a new colony like the planets inhabited in sic-fi films. The research shows that there is actually limited real estate available on the moon which would provide the right conditions for a permanent space base of a dozen or so “lunatics” (lunar inhabitants
). Would this force an new cosmic economic struggle? What then would life be like as an inhabitant of the moon? Dartnell asks the question “when” not “if” the first human will be born in space or on the moon. This surely will be a landmark event for modern society, and another question must be what nationality will they be?
From Dartnell’s talk it seems like we are on the brink of a new space age – he also mentioned the lucrative prospect of mining space, where asteroid belts may be harvested for the trillions of dollars of precious metals, and the growing efforts of a manned trip to mars. But the idealistic view of space travel as the pursuit of knowledge or understanding seems to have been replaced by ideas of more financially rewarding pursuits. Perhaps this is my own nostalgic view coming into play, but it really does always leave me a little staggered when I see the moon or stars and truly appreciate what I am looking at. I hope we never lose that feeling of wonder, and slight element of mysticism held with a only half believing heart. How can we hold on to this?
I’m not sure if the day was exactly a glimpse into the future? As Denis Santachiara put it “Futurologists forecasts are often a lot less radical than reality…Reality has offered far more than futurologists had imagined it would.” Perhaps instead this was a glimpse into a range of presents – the research being carried out by a very varied group of people on an equally varied number of topics. Some issues do seem almost tangible in their nature, but perhaps these are not radical enough to be our futures? The author of the quote escapes me, but I remember once hearing “for a physics theory to be taken seriously, it must first be unbelievable”, and you may same the same about these futures. The interesting thing for me was not only the content of the discussions, but the range of ideas across the spectrum – from ideas which were a few months away, to ones which may well never happen, and if they do will be long after our lifetimes. Futurology is of course speculation to a degree, we can never predict the future – we live in an imprecise fluid world, but it does reveal useful traits about the present too. Whatever you take from these interpretations of the event, or the talks themselves if you attended, it is true to say that the future will not be the same, and its coming full steam ahead.