As one or two of you older people may know, I’ve wasted my life as a television journalist and historian writing books and articles and making TV shows about technology and science and their social effect, and just so you get into proper perspective what I’d like to say this afternoon, let me remind you of something the late, great Mark Twain once said, when you might have been talking about people like me and my colleagues, he said, ‘in the real world, the right thing never happens in the right place at the right time. It is the task of journalists and historians to rectify this error.’ So in order to rectify the future I want to spend most of my time looking at the past because there’s nowhere else to look: (a) because the future hasn’t happened yet and never will, and (b) because almost all the time in any case the future, as you’ve heard more than once today, is not really much more than the past with extra bits attached, so to predict, I’m saying we look back.
Take, for example, the fundamental active prediction that you’re operating right now; by which I mean the way at this moment you’re using your extraordinary predictive abilities to solve a highly complex dynamic, critically important, real-time problem: understanding me. And what I mean is this. If you think about the speak-listen event going on between you and me now, there is no time, is there, for you to hear what I say, go into some kind of lexicon in your head, search for the word I’ve just made, put that word on the end of the word-string so far, see that it makes sense, and come out and wait for the next word, because even if all you were accessing in there was the average sixteen year old’s vocabulary of twelve thousand five hundred words…something wrong with education there somewhere…anyway, at one millisecond per active neural retrieval, you’d be taking twelve and a half seconds to identify each word and you’re not doing that, are you? Good!
So what are you doing? Well, as you know, every healthy brain on the planet has about a hundred billion neurons, each carrying up to fifty thousand connective dendrites, each of which is potentially in contact with another quarter of a million connective dendrites. So it looks as if the possible combinatorial number of ways a signal, a thought, could go through that stuff is greater than the number of atoms in the known universe, and you’ve got one. And what you’re doing with yours right now, is drawing on a moderately large database, the six hundred and sixteen thousand five hundred words in the long-term core English language that I might use, so as to perform dynamic real-time analytics on the syntax, the grammar, the content of what I’ve said so far, plus other cues you’ve already picked up, like the three thousand potential configurations of my facial muscles, my body language; the kind of stuff you kind of think I’m going to be talking about anyway, and pulling all that stuff together to run simultaneous connective scenarios ahead of me, so as to identify all the probable words I will make next, and then power-down the wrong ones as I come on through, and then working out the next set of potential alternatives and going on doing that in real-time as long as I go on doing this blah-blah-blah.
What that means, of course, is that you’re all giving this talk before I am! And….and any other talk I might have given! And anything that anybody will say at this conference. One wonders why you came. But note what I said at the very beginning about looking back to look forward. To predict you extrapolate on what’s there already. We predict the future from the past, working within the local context from within the well-known box, which may be why the future has so often in the past been a surprise. I mean, James Watt’s steam engine was just supposed to drain mines. The printing press was just supposed to print a couple of Bibles. The telephone was invested by Alexander Graham Bell just to teach deaf people to talk. The computer was made specifically to calculate artillery shell trajectories. Viagra was just supposed to be for angina. I mean; what else?
This boxed-in view of the future is why the average medieval person would’ve fallen off their bar stool at the lunatic notion that one day in the far distant future, our world, everybody would have their own personal form of transportation to go where they chose when they chose. And this person would have laughed heartily at that because it was a contradiction in terms, given the fact that under such conditions, streets would become total standstill twenty-feet deep in horse shit. That whole question of paradigm constraint on the way we think about the future, or indeed anything, was once cogently addressed by the great modern philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, the guy who ruined everybody’s life when he said, ‘If anything can be said at all, it can be said clearly.’
Apparently, somebody once went up to Wittgenstein and remarked what a bunch of morons we Europeans must have been nine hundred years ago before Copernicus told us how the solar system worked to have looked up in the sky, and to have thought what we were seeing up there was the sun going round the earth, when as anybody knows, the earth goes round the sun and you don’t have to be Einstein to get that. To which Wittgenstein is said to have replied, as philosophers often will, ‘Yeah, yeah. But…’ he said, ‘I wonder what it would’ve looked like up there if the sun had been going round the earth.’ The point being, of course, it would’ve looked exactly the same. What he was saying was that, in any given circumstance, you see what your version of things at the time tells you you’re seeing. If you’re an astronomer, and the contemporary paradigm says the universe is made of omelettes, you build instruments to search for traces of intergalactic egg. And if you don’t find any: no problem. Instrument failure. So the evident difficulty that ordinary people seem to have with second-guessing innovation today would seem primarily to be that the present high rates of technological change are updating the paradigm, what you think you’re seeing, faster than most individuals, and more especially, institutions, can keep up. No wonder the reaction of the typical consumer to today’s avalanche of new gizmos and new ways of doing things reminds one of the story of the depressive who gets a couple of days off from the clinic, goes to the beach to get himself a tan. The next day, his psychiatrist back in the hospital gets a post-card from this holidaying depressive. The message on the card reminds one of the attitude of the average citizen to technological change because the message on the card reads, from the holidaying depressive reads, ‘Having a wonderful time. Why?’
Another problem with the future is because during the innovative process, the rules of maths change and one and one unpredictably makes three. Ideas come together that never did so before, and the result of that process is more than the sum of the parts. For example, the nineteenth century German engineer, Wilhelm Maybach puts together the antiseptic spray used back then in hospital operating theatres so surgeons know about that, and kerosene, used back then for oil lamps, so lighting engineers know about that, and comes up with the carburettor for the new car manufacturers who know nothing about either antiseptics or illumination.
But what makes accurate prediction even more difficult are the potential secondary ripple effects. The unintended consequences which almost always have almost nothing to do with the original reason for the innovation. I mean, it’s 1856, and thanks to gas light production, there’s more free throw-away coal tar by-product than you can shake a stick at. So, young British chemist William Perkin decides coal tar is going to be a good, free place to look for artificial quinine. Our colonial troops in the steamier parts of the world are going down like flies from malaria and Perkin will save the day. Well, one thing a sludge he comes up with after months of noodling is not, is artificial quinine, so he chucks it down the sink; sees what it does to the water, and becomes a millionaire overnight, because he’s invented the world’s first artificial aniline dye. In typically British fashion, he sells the idea to a German. A few years later, however, a German pathologist accidentally spills some of the new dye into a petri dish and discovers that it selectively stains only one kind of bacillus. Unexpected consequence of gas light: chemotherapy.
On a somewhat more cosmic scale, this unexpected consequence up here on the screen. As you know, of course, this is the Bayeux Tapestry created in 1077 to commemorate the Battle of Hastings eleven years earlier, when the invading French beat us Anglo-Saxons and took over England, because they fought on horseback and won, and we fought on foot and lost. The French were on horseback because they were using this thing, here. The stirrup. A new trick recently arrived from medieval Afghanistan, where it had originally been designed as a single step up, to use when you were loading a camel and short of time. This was going to make loading camels quick and easy. Well, what else? Those camel loaders had never even heard of the French, who realised that if you put one of these steps on either side of a horse and stuck your feet in them, you’d stay anchored on the horse when you hit the enemy with your lance and the full weight of the horse. Shock troop (?), it was called. So the French shock troops wiped the floor with us Anglo-Saxon foot soldiers. All right; better military technology wins battles, but then came the ripple effect. When the French took over England, they also took over the language, and that’s why millions of us around the world now speak the way we do, and not the way we would be speaking if the French hadn’t used the stirrup and won that battle, and if the English language had not become half-French, which it is, we’d still be talking like this….(sorry, can’t transcribe that bit!!). Anglo Saxon. The unexpected world-wide ripple effect of one little camel-loading gizmo.
Happens all the time. You can never do just one thing and expect just one result. The typewriter took women out of the kitchen and put them in the office and boosted the divorce rate. The first refrigerators kept food fresh and punched a hole in the ozone layer. Social media helped students find a date and then organised Obama’s election campaign and then revolutions in the Middle East. But the biggest ripple effect perhaps of all time, and the one that veers most closely to what we’re talking about here was the one that I would argue shaped modern innovation itself. Triggered when Christopher Columbus did his thing. Not discover America, but the fact that back in 1492, the definitive last-word authority on all knowledge is Aristotle, whose definitive last-word stuff includes a map of the world, on which America does not appear. So in 1492, what’s it doing there?
And worse is to come. Throughout the century after Columbus, flooding in from this new, supposedly non-existent place, and then other newly discovered places around the globe, come new plants and new animals and new minerals and people that nobody had ever seen before, and they’re not on Aristotle’s definitive list either. In the intellectual panic that follows, like, Jeez, if Aristotle is wrong, there goes the epistemological neighbourhood, a French military engineer, the man I personally blame for everything, named René Descartes, comes up with a solution. A technique that ensures your data will be trustworthy. Descartes’ technique locks down how we innovate, how we think about innovation and how we predict from then until about now, because he works out how to generate the kind of data that will not let you down like Aristotle’s did, with rules for thinking that everybody’s going to conform to. I’ll paraphrase; forgive me if it’s a little over-simple. Modern innovation is based on Descartes’ two rules. One: apply methodical doubt. If the guy tells you something’s definite, think of it as probable. If he said it’s probable, think of it as possible, and if he says it’s possible, forget it. Two: be reductionist, that is, reduce your view of everything down to its simplest component elements, that way you’ll see how it works and if it breaks, how to fix it.
Before Descartes, we all live happily in a slow-changing, empty world by the medieval maxim, credo ut intelligam: through belief I come to knowledge. After Descartes, we turn it the other way round. Intelligo ut credam: rough translation, when I have examined your proposition for traps, I’ll get back to you!
We Europeans take to Descartes with all the abandon of an alcoholic and a brewery. Result: methodical doubt and reductionism kick off modern scientific method. Turn the process of innovation into a noodler’s paradise, and drive us all deep into the fissures and cracks of specialist data, so deep in the long run, we start to lose site of where we are, because pretty soon back then, the reductionist mission statement becomes the one that has driven innovation and expertise of any kind ever since then. Learn more and more about less and less. Like a pal of mine at Oxford who got his Doctorate in the seventeenth century poet John Milton’s use of the comma. He is now Head of Department at a senior American University, because he did what reductionism requires you to do to get ahead: make your specialist niche so small there’s only room in there for you. And then explain yourself only in your own gobbledygook. In this way, you are incomprehensible and therefore irreplaceable.
Descartes’ reductionist approach sets the guidelines for how to identify and evaluate the single critical contemporary problem, how to predict what the solution to that single problem will be, and how to turn that prediction into specifically targeted innovation. As a result, reductionism has triggered accelerating change and the explosion of data faster than institutions and institutional thinking can handle. Change is leaving us behind because along the way, as reductionism has taken hold, the effect has been to slice and dice the disciplines into hundreds of scientific and technological niche studies, which then over time become disciplines in their own right, and then repeat the process.
This scientific drilling down into data and the emergence of stuff so arcane that nobody outside the field understands it: try asking a quantum chromodynamicist what she does for a living. It’s also of course why we in the industrialised nations are, in general, the healthiest, wealthiest people in history, because up to now, reductionist innovation has triggered spectacular advances. In each generation, a small number of noodlers has achieved what the previous generation would’ve classified as miraculous. My laptop could have easily and simultaneously landed Apollo 11 on the moon, organised a flash mob, downloaded a movie and done my tax return. All at the same time. These days, by the time you’ve read the manual, they’re not making that model any more.
But the other aspect of this kind of highly focused, innovative, productive, successful reductionist behaviour is the way in which a lifetime of specialist silo thinking, which science and technology and especially business often require of their R&D troops, head down at their work benches, makes it difficult to predict what will happen when information technology causes your noodling to bump into somebody else’s noodling. And the easier information moves around, the more that happens. The inventor of information theory, the great Claude Shannon once said, ‘Information causes change. If it doesn’t, it’s not information.’ Example: no information: you are sitting in a seat. Information: the person next to you has a communicable disease. Not true. It’s a truism, is it not, that over the last fifty years, the growth rate of information technology has brought radical change to every aspect of life, together with advances in communications technology, IT is networking the world. But m ore important, it has modified the innovation process itself. First of all in the science and technology silos that Descartes created which became more and more specialised, so that in the twentieth century, innovation stopped being what gentlemen amateurs, like Michael Faraday did, and started instead coming out of R&D labs.
The gobbledygook stuff I mentioned before. I mean, as part of his work on thin films, for example, the nineteenth century Scots physicist James Dewar, kept a bubble inflated for three years. People thought he was nuts. End result: cling film and the packaging industry. It was Rosalind Franklin’s noodling around with coal crystal structures that eventually made it possible to discover DNA. And now in the early twenty-first century, the innovation process has changed again. Thanks to the internet, it is now much easier for noodlers to be exposed to other noodlers, with explosive effect, because as the American mathematician, Norbert Wiener once said, back in the forties he came up with cybernetics, by the way, he once said, ‘Major innovation comes most of all from the unexplored no-man’s land between the disciplines.’
As IT makes it easier to cross the line between those disciplines, the rate of innovation surges. I mean, look at the names of the newer sciences. They are all cross-discipline. So if we want to do better in the global market-place where you either innovate or die, maybe we should be looking at ways for our educational systems to add to their specialist training programmes a few programmes for training people to think cross-discipline; people whose area of expertise would be no-man’s land. I mean, maybe Einstein was right when he said, ‘We are all born with magnificent brains which formal education then slowly destroys.’ I think he was referring to the linear reductionist mode of thinking; we’re still all taught at school, where intelligence is still equated with focus and specialisation. Old-fashioned values maybe now that inter-disciplinary is no longer a dirty word, and especially as the nuts and bolts of innovation become more and more the responsibility of semi-intelligent software. Focus may turn out to be what the machine is beset at, and a waste of imaginative human brainpower.
With that in mind, and at a very, very simple level, I have been working spare time for a number of years on a small on-line tool designed to get students to think more inter-discipline; more context about the stuff they’re learning, because as I hope to show in a minute, that kind of thinking may turn out to be critically important if we are to predict more accurately how to handle things when they start to turn scary in about forty years. The database for this little tool of mine is in the very early stage at present, made up of about twenty eight hundred people, events and artefacts from history, split about equally between the humanities and the arts, and inter-connected among themselves about thirty-five thousand ways. So the potential number of journeys you can take through this little web should be enough to keep one class busy one hour a week for one year. The name of the game is to learn new things and find new connections, reveal new relationships by taking journeys of contextual discovery across this little web to see how everything it ultimately connected to everything else across all disciplines. So what I’m hoping to do is to encourage young users to think connectively and therefore innovatively in the one plus one equals three mode, early in their learning experience.
Now…you’ve heard this apology before. The project is still work in progress so I can show you the plumbing but not much more. Let me see if I can get it to work there….OK. The basis is, each node, each person, event or whatever, has a thousand words of biography or detail with, you know, bells and whistles and videos and whatever else that young kids need in order to retain their attention. A number of ways that you can get into the thing. Again, the interface is not complete. We are not for profit, so you have to wait for volunteers: those with the time don’t have the talent, and those with the talent don’t have the time. However, I’m sure you’ve come across that problem before. One of the interfaces we’re playing with for the youngest kids are this kind of cosmos of knowledge…nested spheres: the further in you go, the further back in time, and on each sphere a century and on the sphere is embedded the nodes, the names of the people involved, so as you fly in past the gateway sphere, you start to hit people and you start to see with whom they have connections of some kind. These connections are usually people they know, work with, hate, fight, marry, whatever. Important connections in a person’s creative life. Having got through that stage or decided more or less where you want to start, you then pass down….woops…not to there…hold it…to here.
So, you’ve gotta make the gateways easy for little kids who are going to be frightened if you write e=mc2. So take chewing gum, uh-hum? Easy enough. If you start with chewing gum, you notice it’s linked to this guy called Santa Anna who was the dictator of Mexico in the nineteenth century, and during one spell in exile in Staten Island he introduced a young American to chewing gum. The young guy went off and became a millionaire; name of Wrigley. Anyway, one of Santa Anna….one day, somebody called Owen came up to Santa Anna and said, I’d like to open a Utopian commune in your country and Santa Anna said, I have bigger fish to fry; clear off. Owen, this libertarian British mill owner, was a pal of another similarly left-wing gentleman called Godwin, kind of proto-Socialist really, and Godwin being the libertarian he was, was mixed up with all kinds of people, as you can see, he’s a sort of…he’s a man with many contacts, one of whom was the free thinker who spent most of his life on the run, called Voltaire. Voltaire, apart from being on the run from the cops, spent a lot of his time doing his best work in the chateau belonging to a lovely lady whose husband was permanently absent, called Emilie du Châtelet, and if I can find her…here she is…Emilie du Châtelet and what she was doing while Voltaire was doing his thing, was writing a book for women on what Newton was up to. So chewing gum to Newton in six easy jumps. Now that wasn’t frightening for a kid.
OK. One of the other things I want to do is to introduce this idea of inter-disciplinarity. So let’s start, let’s say you go into a music lesson and you…somebody says, we’re going to look at Mozart today. So here’s Mozart, and we start on the journey with Mozart. Mozart stole the idea for the Marriage of Figaro from a fifteenth-rate…sorry French people in the audience…called Beaumarchais. Beaumarchais is a total no-no, except for the fact that he was chosen by the King to be the man who laundered all the money across the Atlantic; guns, armour, cannon, ships, men, you name it, to help the Americans in the War of Independence against us, without whose help they would not have won. Beaumarchais was therefore a very big pal of the man who would end up being a President called Jefferson. Jefferson was again a libertarian; one of the things he tried to do was to get the death penalty taken off the books in the state of Virginia where he was Governor for a while, and he was that way inclined because he had read a book by an Italian thinker about crime and punishment; the first book that ever said, if somebody commits a murder, why in order to punish him does the State commit murder? In other words, anti capital punishment. He got many of his good ideas from a couple of lunatics from Vienna called Gall and Spurzheim. They’re the guys who came up with this amazing pseudo-science called Phrenology; idea being inside the brain are all the organs of your character. If they are very well developed like if you’re very kind, or if you’re very criminal, that organ grows and makes a bump in your skull. So you read the skull and read the character. If you want to improve people, you read their skull and you find out if they need lessons in kindness or something. Social reformers jumped at this stuff, especially one in Germany called Vollen (?), who fell for the idea of social reform so much he went around stabbing people and was hauled up in front of a judge called E T A Hoffmann, who in his spare time wrote the first creepy stories about stuff like the dead coming out of graves and sucking your blood and going back to the grave before dawn.
His ideas were copied to some extent by the American writer, Edgar Allan Poe, and Poe’s ideas were picked up by a Russian composer called Rachmaninov, who was at a party in Long Island one day; I think it was 1913, and he bumped into another Russian émigré who impressed the Hell out of him, and he gave this young man five thousand bucks, through which Sikorsky was able to develop the first functioning helicopter. So, Mozart to the helicopter in ten jumps…..No….(applause)….anybody can do this stuff.
But my point is: Mozart, yes, music. But then finance, government, criminology, neurology, politics, law, literature and aeronautics. So Mozart isn’t just music. One aim of this kind of approach is of course ultimately to service the innovation economy requirements of the next two or three decades by making people aware from the very beginning that something they know may be meaningfully related to something somebody else knows in some other silo or discipline or community, and that identifying those data relationships might be easier with a network process like a web of your organisation or of your industry, of the global social, political or commercial environment, and so on. And the key thing about using these webs is as you travel, you discover one plus one equals three type relationships, not generally identified, in the standard reductionist way information is packaged and arranged both in academia and business, according to pre-designed taxonomies that lock the data up in specialist silos accessible only to the people who talk that kind of gobbledygook.
On a wider level, an assessment of talent in this web travelling exercise might no longer be a matter of just whether or not the student knew some one-size-fits-all correct answer, and ticked the right box, but what kind of pathway they took across the map. What connective linkages they made when attempting a solution to a problem. From a society-wide perspective, the reason this kind of connective learning technique seems germane right now is because if Information Technology’s doing anything, it’s creating a world of such increasing inter-dependence - think sub-prime mortgages or Greek finance - that we need to be more cross-disciplined that ever before and become more aware of impending change, more ahead of time.
We live now in a world of such networked connectivity, we’re also discovering that in many cases the reductionist way of solving one problem at a time may not be fast enough or systemic enough any more. Because Descartes’ thinking kind of throws the world and took it apart to look at the bits. Today, the more we take a systems view, the more we realise that reduction tells you about the bits, but not necessarily how they work dynamically together.
Another thing about the webbed approach to innovation is that apart from facilitating cross-discipline thinking, it might also lead to easier predictive capabilities, because all prediction involves the systemic assessment of the connective elements of a situation, before you decide which way to jump. So in my little web, I included a couple of historical examples as prediction templates for the kids to try. Here’s one. Let’s pretend that you are an eighteenth century textile company called…can I type?….yeah, we’re getting there, OK. Here you are, you’re XYZ Textiles, and there’s your company and all the guys in the office, this and that and the other. Here is your loom provider; he’s a man who builds a loom, his name’s Arkwright and he’s a real historical character. OK, now because you’re using this kind of system, you’ve got your guys out in the field sending you in data that they’re picking up about what’s going on in the market place, telling you who’s doing what, who’s talking to whom, who’s doing deals, so you know that today, these are the people Arkwright’s talking to. Like you, they’re all in textiles, so like terrorist trackers, you look for the anomaly. Is there one here? Well, why is he talking to this guy, who is not in textiles. His name is Joe Black, and he’s a physics professor at…..oops…he’s a physics professor at Glasgow University. Turns out that Black is busy explaining to the University repair man the physics of steam so that that guy can improve the performance of a drainage pump. The guy’s name is James Watt, and the thing he ends up producing is a thing called the steam engine, which is about not only to change your textile industry, but the entire planet. Had you known in advance using a webbed approach like this, you might have been able to move your mills from the mountain rivers to coal fields and cities and tripled your output ahead of the competition.
The great eighteenth century French mathematician, Pierre Simon Laplace once said, talking about this way of second-guessing things, he said, ‘You want me to predict everything? Fine: tell me everything.’ Think about the kind of information harvesting techniques we’re going to have soon, and you’ll see that with data mining and semi-intelligent electronic agents and knowledge-webbing, we’re going to be close to what Laplace was talking about, maybe within your lifetime, with the ability to know what’s going on at the science technology social interface, and to identify outcomes across a range and at a level of detail of orders of magnitude greater than ever before. Fine; terrific. Except for what I said earlier about the rear-view mirror. In the way that organisations and institutions look for new knowledge, new technology so as to generate innovations that will do what they need to stay ahead, they’re still in most cases doing what they’ve been doing since the first stone axe. Looking backwards, saying this is what we do so what can we invent to do it better, cheaper, faster and maybe with fewer people. Institutions manage change above all so that they can make sure that innovation doesn’t mean disruption. Established institutions, even yours, are vulnerable to disruptive technology.
Look what happened to fax machines, Kodak film, camcorders, VHS, CDs, you name it. So institutions have always expended effort to make sure that if at all possible, no boats got rocked. Six hundred years ago the first printing presses came, along with a government censor who stood right next to it, telling you what you could and couldn’t print. Medieval crossbows were denied to peasants because with one, you could nail a mounted aristocrat at distance and nip back into the bushes. The first nineteenth century Sunday Schools taught poor children to read, but not to write. That way, you could understand the factory rules, but not question them. The US President today swears to preserve, protect and defend, not predict, innovate and replace, even sometimes that might have been a good idea.
The status quo attitude goes all the way back to the caves and makes good sense. For the whole of history til now, we’ve lived with a need to keep the lid on the ongoing problem of scarcity. Never enough of anything for everybody to have some. Every aspect of society today relates to that historic requirement to mitigate in some way the deleterious effect of shortfall in food, water, raw materials, security, innovation, money, medicine; whatever. Every social organisation in history has so far been set up primarily to handle some aspect of scarcity. Single purpose organisations still around today, set up in the past with the technology of the past to solve the problems of the past, according to the values of the past. And today, operating in many cases, much the same way they did when they were set up. Representative democracy is a marvellous example. Originally designed to handle the seventeenth century problem of scarcity of good roads and communications. You find a couple of fools with a horse and time to spare, and you send them out bandit-ridden roads of the capital to represent you. The roads are so bad and so dangerous, they only come back infrequently to find out if you’ve changed your mind. After a while, these horse-owning fools become known as politicians, and their return journeys as elections. Today, we have perfect roads and telecommunications up the Ying Yang, and the same single purpose seventeenth century political process.
Given modern rates of innovation then, our backward institutions are already under considerable stress, particularly over recent decades as information technology and communications have begun to change the world faster than they can handle. In the light of this institutional lag time, and given the extrapolating turnover rate of modern technology, arguments are already being advanced that we should revive the old 1970s idea of an Office of Technology Assessment, on the grounds that since we already regulate with regard say to the environment, why not with regard to innovation in the community? There are many examples of past technology we might well have wished to avoid or constrain, had we had the procedures back then. I’m thinking of stuff like DDT, the ozone layer, asbestos, nuclear weapons, and so on. And things have already become more complex than that thanks primarily to the cloud. With ever kind of software based…based on a pay as you go lease, the smallest risk-taking start-up can now benefit from the kind of management and research fire-power that once only major corporations could afford, so we can expect the rate of disruptive game-changing innovation to accelerate, and thanks to the cloud, without the need for massive start-up capital, coming out of garages and back rooms everywhere. If the social institution thought they were under stress before, they ain’t seen nothing yet.
There is, however, one other possibility with which I’ll deal in the rest of this talk. The possibility that everything I have said so far means nothing. Doesn’t matter. Thanks to what looks like to be heading our way in about thirty years’ time. There are already at the lighter end of this thing, more than two thousand nanotech products on the market in everything from sunscreen to tennis racquets coming out of more than two thousand companies and labs all over the world. Ever since, I think it was 1990, when IBM wrote IBM with thirty five xenon atoms, every day there’s news about some new nanotech advance. Nanotech has recently been suggested as the next medium for storage and retrieval of data on an astronomically large scale. Last month, the first nano-machine shop was announced. Three weeks ago, somebody came up with a single phosphorus atom working as a transistor. Last week, gold nano-clusters succeeded in diffusing laser light enough to think it’s possible to create transmittable 3D holograms.
In a coming two or three decades, nano-technology in more general terms promises extraordinary advances. Virtually free energy; delivery of medication to specific individual cells in the body; clean drinking water planet-wide; a pollution-free global environment; non wasteful bottom-up manufacture; food for everybody delivered in intelligent packaging; silent, clean transportation systems; ubiquitous zeta-byte computers on a chip; virtually free ultra-high bandwidth; the end of the greenhouse effect and the ozone layer problem, and semi-intelligent machines of all kinds at all scales. This is the kind of stuff politicians and institutions drool over. Short range solutions to immediate and specific problems of scarcity that will come in time to get you re-elected or made chairman of the board. And all the talk and all the government and industry and think-tank reports on nano-technology is about how long it’s going to take. How we pay for the research and how we train enough specialists to make it happen. Why we need to get it first and what will happen if we do. Whether this will really add one thousand trillion dollars to the global economy; how we get nano-technology out to the world, and especially the third world. The problem of intellectual property right; will nano-robots escape in the form of grey goo and eat the planet? Will neuro-morphic engineering turn us all into cyborg monsters? How do we get public opinion on board and above all, how many backward looking regulatory committees do we need to set up in advance to do what?
In the midst of all this white hot technology blah-blah-blah, and there’s a ton of it, you read almost nothing about the elephant in the room. What’s nano-technology going to do socially and when? Now you may feel that what I’m about to say is never going to happen. Well, from inside the box that was also once said about going to the moon, X-Rays, aeroplanes, e-mail and, as I mentioned earlier, Viagra; so hear me out and forgive me if I put it a bit too simply for some of you.
The next big thing being discussed in nano-technology is what’s called a personal nano-factory. Thirty or forty years from now, sitting in your garage or garden shed, assembling and processing stuff at the molecular level to produce anything you want: fresh water, clothing, bricks and mortar, a car, gold, lunch, medication, a bottle of chardonnay, the Mona Lisa; whatever. If it’s atoms and molecules, and what isn’t, you’ll be able to make it. And the feedstock for this machine will be in the main dirt, air and water and there’ll be the cheap, carbon-rich acetylene gas which once you’re up and running, of course you can make yourself. With a nano-factory, you’re totally autonomous, and then the thing about it is, the nano-factory makes a copy of itself, so one, two, four, eight, sixteen, thirty two, sixty four, etc, or better still of course, make the construction software available on-line. Either way, the guess is, one for everybody on the planet in a matter of months.
I’m not making a case for how soon this will happen; that it will come does not seem to be in doubt. No law of physics prevents it, according to Nobel prize physicist, Richard Feynman, who kicked it all off fifty years ago, with a nice piece called Plenty of Room at the Bottom. Exactly when, nobody knows for sure, but certainly within the lifetime of some of the people in this room. Call it four scholastic generations. What I’m arguing is, that even forty years isn’t much to turn around an entire social and commercial infrastructure, remodelling society from the bottom up; working out in time for the event, new rules for everything, because everything will be changed, made obsolete.
Let me offer a few thoughts about what that might mean. Let’s say that in forty years or so, each of us can make every material essential we need autonomously and at virtually no cost, because although the first manufacturing instructions will be proprietary and will cost money and may open a temporary digital divide, free hacker versions will inevitably come, so let’s say that happens. What comes then is something for which our one hundred thousand years of talking, two million years of tool use, our millennial backward-looking obsession with survival in the face of scarcity have not prepared us. Abundance. Every aspect of our social existence like our institutions has always been shaped by the culture of scarcity in which we’ve lived since the beginning. All our values and ethics and beliefs and standards and behaviour patterns relate to scarcity. Property is private. PhDs are special people. Diamonds are expensive. Genius is rare. Scarce equal valuable. Every organisation and institution in the world is in some way or other dealing with the problem of scarcity. Or, since the beginning of the industrial revolution and the beginning of advertising, creating perceived scarcity. In 1898 America, for example, the first one was the Uneeda Biscuit Company. Get the name? Uneeda. Before then, who knew they needed a biscuit?
So, what happens to the organisations satisfying these needs when people with personal nano-factories don’t need? What happens to all the jobs in those organisations, and to all the taxes they provide the economy with so Governments can create and manage the national infrastructure. But, if you no longer need power coming off the grid, or goods going up and down the road, do you need an infrastructure? Or anything else the government does? Will politics survive at all with virtually no need to tax and spend? If people don’t work to live any more, how do they define themselves? Does abundance remove the trigger of scarcity that used to stimulate our creativity? How do we organise a global community composed not of one hundred and ninety six countries, but of nine billion autonomous individuals. If there is no scarcity, does anything have any value, and what does worth mean? Will DIY nano-weapons trigger guerrilla terrorism, the like of which we’ve never seen before, and if so, how do we prevent that, when in one sense, there is no longer any we? We’ve no need to grab or protect raw material resources: is that the end of war? Will the cities empty when we can live and live comfortably on anywhere on the planet, and when each of us does live a geographically separate, truly independent life, what happens to the culture we once shared, or will we achieve that through the use of real-time 3D holograms, and what will that do to the way we socialise, especially if we hide behind avatars? Will any institution or organisation of any kind survive in its present form? Will the last act of nation states before they turn off the lights and leave the building be to provide emergency free downloads for nano-manufactured essentially, like food, water, shelter, clothing, transportation and medication. And then will nine billion people, each with their personal nano-factory ready to download software and spit out dreams, represent the greatest individually customised consumer goods software market that history has ever seen?
The amount of innovation that such a marketplace could sustain might be limited only by the global imagination. But what will we use to pay for it? There are a million more questions which abundance throws up to be answered, and we may have no more than forty years to predict what those answers will need to be. Just as well we have the tools to do that, starting with the magic predictor I began at the beginning. Last count, there were, here in the UK, sixth two million, six hundred and forth one thousand brains, most of them unused! All of them capable of helping; maybe in some kind of planet-wide Delphi-experiment, you know, where you ask people their opinion and then tell all the others what they said, and then repeat the question so they can change their view if they want to, go on doing that until their group opinion stops moving and then use that to base your decision on. But any exercise, even as simple as that, will only work if in the next four scholastic generations, technology is used to give people the means to benefit from a new cross-disciplinary kind of thinking, and a new more direct access form of democracy, to help them make the complex social decisions about how to set up and then let lose a kind of global balanced anarchy, involving nine billion autonomous individuals. There may well be social disruption on a massive scale unless we can accurately predict how to get there from here, unless we can at least decide whether or not we really do want to live in an entirely Facebook world. And unless we tackle the biggest question of all: what will individuals become when for the first time in history, there is no need to conform to any rules or standards of any kind about anything….working all this out in advance will not be easy, because this is not the future we’re used to dealing with. The old future, the one in the rear-view mirror: we have no paradigm for this new future. We’ve never been there before.
I am basically optimistic about all this, if for no other reason than that pessimists jump out of the window, and are no longer involved. And speaking of jumping, I think the last thing we want to do about the challenge of nano-technology and abundance, would be to respond to the challenge in the way usually favoured by the present short-term political and social paradigm with which we live. The business-as-usual approach, because if we do take that approach, we may find ourselves in the same position as the man who falls off the top of a skyscraper. As he’s falling past the seventy-seventh floor, somebody calls out to ask him how he’s doing. He shrugs and now falling past the fifty-fifth floor says, hey: so far, so good.
Let me end with a short tale from my own work to illustrate the kind of uncharted waters that lie ahead.
It is a dark and stormy night in 1707, and Admiral Sir Cloudesley-Shovel is bringing the great English fleet back home. He’s not quite sure where he is; he decides to turn right, and he hits the rocks off the end of France and the entire fleet goes down and everybody drowns. Unsurprisingly, this causes Parliament to offer a prize for better navigation techniques. So a Yorkshire clock-maker called Huntsman goes looking for better steel for clock springs because, the problem of longitude, to know where you are going east to west, you need to know exactly what time it is back home and here, because the difference will tell you how much earlier or later the sun or whatever rose, and that tells you where you are on the planet. This at the time matters a great deal, because we Brits at the time are going east to west to rape the planet.
Well the steel Huntsman invents is great for clock springs, so that’s sorted. Huntsman’s steel however is also great for doing something else. It cuts metal like butter, so an iron maker called Wilkinson uses it to re-mount thin walled, lightweight cannon barrels, which in spite of the fact that in 1776 we’re at war with both of them, he sells to the Americans and the French. Nothing changes. A little bit later on, Napoleon uses these lightweight British cannon barrels to develop mobile horse artillery, and win all his battles, except the last one, and start the empire. In 1810 with France lagging way behind our industrial revolution, Napoleon sets up a prize to encourage French invention, and a champagne bottler called Nicolas Appert steps forward with a great idea. Boil up some food in a sealed champagne bottle and kill the germs that nobody knows exist. An English company ten years later is doing it in tins, because they have bought Appert’s patent. In the Paris Patent Office that day, they also come across and buy another patent that nobody seems to want, for a new continuous process, wallpaper making technique, which eventually allows these guys to return to London, where advances in ceramic pipe technology are making possible extensive new sewerage works, and to modify their continuous process wallpaper making technique, so as to produce the world’s first toilet roll.
This is where we are today. Looking ahead to guess at the effects of the nano-factory as if we were the sailors on Shovel’s sinking flagship being required to predict the toilet roll.
Well, that’s my ten cents’ worth, thank you for giving this talk before I did. You can stop now!