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5 Jan 2015

My predictions for the next 10, 20, 30 years

Filed under: Digital revolution,Politics and philosophy — paulcook @ 11:09 pm

The latest in my once-every-two-years blog posts — oops. Over the New Year, I thought I’d make some predictions for the longer term. I’m looking forward to laughing at them in 2025, 2035 and 2045!

EDIT: some typos fixed

2025 (10 years time)

  • Physical signatures on paper will start becoming less common, replaced with electronic signatures and third-party document management systems. Over the next few years, security breaches or failures of some of these companies will lead to greater regulation of the industry. The result will eventually look similar to the credit rating agency or stock exchange industries of 2014 – several private companies running businesses in an industry heavily shapen by and working alongside regulatory agencies.
  • Hipster becomes accepted mainstream, as the desire for possession of mass-produced physical items is increasingly replaced with the quest for experience and “story” via artisanal and niche products. An increasing share of these products are virtual. Provision of these products and services will avoid massive unemployment, despite continuing decline in jobs in many of the careers that provided employment in 2014.
  • The global call-centre industry will finally peak (at a massive size), as new generations prefer to interact with computers and search for answers online. Content writing for helpdesks and forums will be the new outsourced growth industry, though it will not create as many jobs as the call centre industry.

2035 (20 years time)

  • As had happened to chess by 2014, computers will be unmistakably better than humans at “hard” AI problems from early 2000s, e.g., face recognition, speech recognition, “discovery” (reading and finding relevant content in huge troves of documents), medical diagnosis. However, AI will not be much closer to human-level consciousness, as we increasingly discover consciousness is not a single brain system, but rather an emergent property of many finely-balanced subsystems in our brains, built by our evolutionary past, that are very hard to abstract away from our brain structure. That is, computers won’t be “conscious” because we discover our “consciousness” is an increasingly slippery and less-generalisable concept than we had imagined.
  • More than 75% percent of seafood will be farmed rather than wild-caught. The exceptions will be either very high-end (and the target of growing environmentalist critiscism) or low-end. Farmed fish breeds will look and behave increasingly different to their wild ancestors.
  • The car industry will be in trouble as individual car ownership becomes less common. In advanced economies, shared self-driving cars summoned by smartphone are the default for many people. The only healthy parts of the industry are high-end luxury cars, low-end cars for emerging markets (though massive congestion is pushing public opinion away from car ownership here too), and self-driving electric cars designed for sharing.
  • Road congestion in advanced economy cities will be much reduced compared to 2014 (as happened to air pollution in these cities in a previous era, e.g., London after 1800s and LA after 1960s). This will be due to reduced private car use, but more so to self-driving cars and much better traffic management (traffic lights, automatic car re-routing).

2045 (30 years time)

  • CO2 emissions will be steadily falling, with global temperatures on track for a 3.5 degree rise. Agriculture will be steady, thanks to most of the world’s famers using genetically modified crops. Widespread but localised wars and revolutions will have happened, all with political proximate causes but with incidence strongly correlated with areas of greatest climate disruption. Large movements of people will also have occurred, leading to dramatic pro- and anti-immigrant upheavals, but these migrants will be largely described as economic- rather than climate-driven.
  • The dominant socio-economic issue will no longer be poverty and financial inequality as measued by Gini coefficient and similar, as this will be superseded by inequality in duration and quality of life. Improved medical technology will leave the top 1% with an expected lifetime almost double that of the bottom 50%, and much better quality of life in the meantime. The advantages of expensive biotech will threaten the assumption that all are born equal, as the offspring of the wealthiest gain developmental advantages, and society faces the danger of a biologically entrenched upper class.
  • The tertiary or “services” sector will employ nearly all workers, with industry following agriculture to become virtually irrelevant in formal employment. Production of physical goods will have followed energy use, to be largely uncorrelated with GDP, as non-physical goods become the bulk of GDP by value. Economists will split services into subsectors, such as traded services (finance, media and content) and non-traded services (hospitality, experiences, personal services).
  • First steps will be taken to in some countries to ban human drivers on certain roads (e.g., long distance highways), for safety reasons. These will be very controversial, pitting clear evidence of massive reductions in death toll due to self-driving cars, versus people’s right to drive themselves, and the rights of those who don’t yet own self-driving cars.

Black swans (that could make the above invalid)

  • Global pandemic of an easy to catch, slow to incubate but deadly virus. Might be caused by rogue biotech labs
  • War between super-powers

What do you think?

25 May 2006

Apportioning the Internet

Filed under: Digital revolution,Politics and philosophy — paulcook @ 8:51 pm

The control of the infrastructure of the Internet is a controversial issue. Recently in the news was the refusal of ICANN, the governing organisation of the domain name system, to approve an application for the creation of a “.xxx” domain — aimed at sites providing pornographic material. The issue is deciding just who actually made the decision. But it’s definitely not the only issue of global fairness in Internet infrastructure.

The problem is that ICANN makes domain name decisions which are then effectively binding on the world (though China may be thinking of breaking ranks). But in general, the rest of the world has to follow suit if the Internet is to continue to work smoothly.

30 Nov 2005

Microsoft and global knowledge assets

Filed under: Digital revolution,Economics — paulcook @ 2:13 pm

Microsoft is gradually approaching the release of its next versions of Windows and Office. For the largest software R&D spender in the world, their progress has been rather like a dead turtle swimming backwards through treacle. But at least that means the products will be bug free and secure, right? Yeah, right. But it does have interesting implications for total global knowledge capital.

You can probably guess my opinion on Microsoft software in general. But one aspect of the release does interest me: the Office user interface. It seems Office 12 will have a number of substantially different user interface tools, such as a much more context-sensitive “ribbon” toolbar, and much less use of menus. And it’s about time.

I really dislike the existing interface, in Word in particular — it’s hard to find useful tools, and Word is forever making the wrong assumptions about the formatting I want. Oh, I miss the days of WordPerfect’s “reveal codes” feature! Unfortunately, open-source competition such as OpenOffice.org is forced to essentially duplicate Word’s broken interface, since that is what everyone is familiar with. Apparently nearly all user-requested features these days are in fact already in Office, but users are unaware of their presence. So I really hope that this release introduces some new ideas in user interfaces. Chances are, since it is Microsoft, that the features will be a little too “cute” to be really useable, but it will hopefully open up some new ideas and options for others to use.

24 Oct 2005

Make any cellphone into a touchpad

Filed under: Digital revolution — paulcook @ 11:18 am

Just came across this: Make Any Cellphone Into a Touchpad – Gizmodo. It’s about a bluetooth pen, that works with (apparently) any bluetooth-capable cellphone, and allows one to “write” on the screen with the pen, and then save or send the resulting pictures.

I’m surprised the same thing is not commonly available for laptops! I suppose the laptop shape is not as convenient, hence the move to tablet PC’s, where you can swivel the screen around to lie flat, reay for writing.

3 Oct 2005

$100 laptops — now what’s the next step?

Filed under: Digital revolution,Technology and science — paulcook @ 7:56 pm

It’s starting to look like Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT Media Lab, might just make his plan for a sub-$100 laptop work. Yes, that’s one hundred dollars. It has some very interesting innovations, and makes all sorts of interesting ideas possible.

The laptop is being developed by a newly-formed foundation, called One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) — have a look at the official FAQ. The idea is to make a really cheap but very usable laptop, which will be bought in quantities of at least a million, by governments, and distributed to schoolchildren. The idea is no less than, well, one laptop per child, anywhere in the world.

28 Jul 2005


Filed under: Digital revolution,Personal — paulcook @ 8:49 am

In the spirit of wardialing and wardriving (see also this), I’d like to propose a term for what the modern low-budget but tech-equipped long-distance flyer (like, say, me) seems to spend much of their time doing: wartravelling.

I have nine hours to kill in JFK airport, New York, between my short and long overnight flights. I had been thinking of hitting New York, but due to certain uncertainties in travel plans, I’ve decided to do some work in the airport and check in as early as possible.

So that leaves me searching for somewhere to sit, featuring (a) a wall power socket, and (b) free wireless internet. Frequently the former can be found at a restaurant, which has the added advantage of waitstaff bringing food and drinks. The free wireless, however, can be tricky, and sometimes requires a little … exploration. Or, as we shall now call it, wartravelling.

In my case it’s worked out quite easily. A huge shoutout to the Swiss and Varig frequent flyer lounges, for sponsoring my wireless internet (though probably without actually realising it). Terminal 4, JFK, the shops before the security checkpoint. I suggest Delancey’s Bar for the most comfortable seats.

Now if only I could stay awake…

30 May 2005

Relaxation = information?

Filed under: Digital revolution,Politics and philosophy — paulcook @ 2:12 pm

I’m addicted to high-information entertainment. Hey, so are most of you reading this. But it’s such a throw-away line that is ceases to mean much to us anymore. But I think I might really mean it.

I sometimes play the mental game, when I’m bored, of imagining what I would do if suddenly transplanted to times long ago. The immediate realisation is that while I have lots of good technological concepts, I don’t really know how to go about, say, finding iron ore or making those cotton spinning machines that were a part of the start of the industrial revolution. And even if I could take my reference material (ie. my laptop) along with me, I could spend my life trying to remember exactly how 1 volt was defined, so as to make a generator to power it.

6 May 2005

Adobe Acrobat and a thousand words

Filed under: Digital revolution — paulcook @ 3:53 pm

Sometimes a picture really can mean a thousand words — especially if it’s a PDF file that was scanned from a paper document. Like, say, a paper written before the advent of online journals. The problem with these, pretty though they may be, is that you can’t do textual searches on words in the document, or copy text without rewriting. Right?

Nope. I discovered yesterday that Adobe Acrobat (full version, not the Reader), as available on campus site-license for Caltech students, includes optical character recognition. Just go to the “Document” menu, and there is an item to read the document.

The beauty of the system is that it doesn’t replace the scanned images with badly formatted text, but rather it associates the recognised text with the image. This allows you to search or select using the text selection tool, even though it’s still the scanned image you’re viewing. It’s quite a surreal experience.

I tested it on one paper, and it works really well. Not only is the accuracy very good, it even recognised that the scanned images were rotated 90 degrees, and in two columns. So when I copied the text from a page, the lines flowed correctly through the first and then the second column.

Since Acrobat can create PDF’s from virtually any image format (possibly via printing to the include PDFWriter “virtual printer” that it installs), you can use this for all your character-reading needs — as long as you don’t need detailed formatting to be preserved. Also, though I haven’t tested this, I think resaving the PDF will embed the textual information in the file, and will make it available even to people using the free Acrobat Reader.

4 May 2005

Upgrading my memory

Filed under: Digital revolution — paulcook @ 7:03 pm

I’m proud to present the Official Langabi.name guide to Adding 256MB of RAM (memory) to your laptop:

  1. Turn off your computer. Open the relevant part of your laptop to expose the memory slots. Check that you have a spare (unused) memory slot.
  2. Remember (correctly) the result of the above check.
  3. Assuming the success of the above steps, order a 256MB RAM chip for your laptop. Sites like Crucial allow you to order the correct RAM for the exact model of laptop that you have.
  4. Wait for the RAM chip to arrive (allow approximately 3 days for shipping and damage. Though hopefully not much of the latter).
  5. Turn off your computer. Touch a metal part of it to remove any static charge you might have. Open the appropriate part to expose the memory slots, and insert the RAM chip. Close the computer again, and turn it back on.
  6. Live in eternal bliss. Or at least until software becomes yet more bloated.

All this can be had for the low, low price of 102.988 Del Taco “Taco Tuesday” tacos*. Or, if you must know, $36.79.

But wait, you say — there are surely lots of far more complete guides (with pictures!) on buying memory, all over the internet? True, but they all leave off the vital step 2.

27 Mar 2005

The joys of rapid application prototyping

Filed under: Digital revolution — paulcook @ 1:49 am

The steps of rapid web application prototyping, as examplified by my experiences of the last day or two:

  1. Realise that some things that your application does could be useful elsewhere in the application, and in fact are ideally suited for being turned into a class of encapsulated code.
  2. On the basis of one or two potential uses, design the class.
  3. Code the class, with excellent style: develop a very robust yet simple external interface; use extensive internal caching to improve efficiency, without polluting the global variable namespace; extensively document both the interface and internals of the class; do extensive error and sanity checking on input and variables.
  4. Feel proud of the above achievement — you have a class that does exactly what it is designed to do.
  5. Begin incorporating it into the rest of your application. Realise almost immediately that what you need does not equal what you designed.
  6. Suffer depression. Sleep on.
  7. By changing the goals of the application, redefine what you need such that it equals what you designed.
  8. Start the next design iteration.

So, in summary: I have no idea what the eventual application will do.

Maybe I shouldn’t have skipped those boring computer science classes on project engineering…