Archives for category: technology

Among the things I think about sometimes is how we got here as a species, and where we’re going.

We tend to think of ourselves as a young species, having only discovered writing (and with it, history itself) in the past 5,000 years, and civilisation (with its permanent monuments) 5,000 years before that. Earlier than this, our history as a race of humans goes quite dark. Archaeology tells us a few things, but the further back we go, all we have are fragments from our past. We can quite easily forget that we are a very old creature indeed. How long ago was it since we discovered language, since we started singing, since we started praying, since we discovered a sense of humour? It’s hard to say, yet it’s quite probable that such traits predate homo sapiens, going back through multiple ancestral species. Were we to travel back a couple of million years, maybe we would still see ourselves in our austrolopithical forebears.

I remember reading a book some time ago, that one group of our ancestors (or possibly close cousins) spent over a million years fashioning an early stone tool with practically no development in all that time. That’s tens of thousands of generations just hammering away with little sense of innovation. They were rooted in the animal world – lives full of fury, struggle and passion, but not one given to legacy or creative accomplishment. Maybe there were stirrings there. Maybe, every so often, one of them came up with an idea, but they were quickly hit over the head, or eaten by a lioness, before that idea (or their genes) had a chance to spread. 

I ask myself if that’s where we’re ultimately going back to. If anything has been successful in the long term on this planet, it’s been that patient toiling away with little progress through the generations. Among all the animals, a sense of constructive wonder seems to be selected against. In the single case where it has succeeded, it’s lead to an exponential increase in technological development, resulting in a potentially untenable situation full of nuclear weapons, over-population, resource depletion, multi-species extinction and the prospect of disastrous climate change. Maybe our ultimate fate (if we survive this time at all) is a return back to the animal realm. Maybe, 90,000 generations hence, our distant children will be back in the trees, or scurrying around in holes, or hammering again on rocks with little thought for art and music. 

I think about the last person in that line, looking around at her species and wondering about it all, before death finally takes her away and the universe once again becomes dim and distant to humanity.

I’m introducing my kids to coding at the moment. I’ve just discovered Scratch and Tynker and, having fallen in love with the UI (a combination of code and coloured lego blocks), I’m encouraging them to write simple programs.

Programming is great; not just because it’s a hugely important skill in itself; but because it teaches kids some valuable lessons about life itself. Here are a few things I’ve learned:

It’s all about making mistakes.

There are few things as frustrating as coding. To get something to work right requires hours of getting stuff wrong. You can be stymied for ages over a misplaced variable name or a minus sign in the wrong place. But if you stick with it, you’ll produce something rather beautiful: something that does just what you want it to do.

That’s how it works if you want to do anything well. You have to be willing to try different things; to accept that your first drafts will be imperfect – particularly when you are trying it for the first time.There’s an awful lot of trial and error in life. Coding gives you a deep insight into this.

There is no such thing as perfection.

Programs are never finished. Even if they do their job well, there’s always something that needs improvement. Perhaps the environment changes, or you need to make it work faster. When you are responsible for a piece of code, you are often in it for the long haul.

This is true to life. We never get to the stage where everything is sorted. In jobs, relationships, goals and personal needs: it’s a constant effort of jumping from one challenge to another. There is no perfect time, just the imperfect now. All we can do is adapt as best as possible.

There are no miracles.

When a piece of code doesn’t work right, the last thing you can do is to reach to a prayer book to answer the problem. Coding doesn’t respond to miracles, only to hard work. There’s always a logical answer embedded there somewhere, and an “aw shucks” moment when you finally figure it out.

In life, there’s a huge amount of fuzzy, magical thinking around which purports to have mystical answers to life’s deepest questions. But in the end, nature trumps such wishful thinking. Many things work in very complex ways, but deep down, it’s just natural laws at work. No matter how much we wish otherwise, there are no short-cuts to figuring out the great problems of life.

You get to practice some important life skills

Coding can involve a lot of playing around and trying things out just for the sake of it. If you are doing it against any kind of deadline, however, or if you need to write code for someone else, you have to learn to organise yourself. Coding generally involves a lot of thinking, writing, testing and improving. If other people are involved you will need to carefully consider how long these different phases are going to take, and give people updates if things don’t go according to plan. This, in essence, is basic project management.

Of all the competencies required by companies nowadays, managing projects is one of the most important skills you can learn. Over time, coding helps you to understand how long a task should take and how to regularly check your progress. You also gain experience in learning how to work with people and what’s involved in giving them just what they want. It’s hard work sometimes. Through it, you learn persistence, tenacity and negotiation – skills that are important throughout your adult career.

Coding is all around us.

The more we learn about this wonderful universe, the more we learn that very similar processes are everywhere around us. Our DNA is a type of elaborate computer program that shows how basic chemicals can be turned into the stuff of life. The way our brains behave and operate is akin to the working of a complex computer system. Evolution itself is an enormous, long term natural coding project where mistakes are punished by extinction, while adaptability is generously rewarded – it’s the biggest experiment in trial and error the world has ever seen.

Coding has helped to open the world up to us; enabling us to understand the universe in ways that our ancestors could never have imagined. Looking at the complexity of nature in terms of different algorithms has allowed us to make sense of it all. From coding you get an insight into how things hang together. It’s through coding we will solve the great challenges of this century.

 

99 Percent InvisibleOver the past few weeks, I have been listening to the 99 Percent Invisible podcast on my journeys to and from work. If you are a fan of This American Life, you will love it. It discusses the influence of design in contemporary society and how its presence is often overlooked, as if, er, by design. Over the past few weeks I have been listening to the nuances of fire escapes, nuclear bomb shelters, and signage designed to last ten-thousand years. From these few episodes alone, I’m eagerly looking forward to hearing some of their older offerings.

I thoroughly recommend their recent episode “The Sound Of Sports“. It opens a window on audio production in sports television and radio. It was originally produced in 2011 for the BBC, and is slightly dated because of it. Despite this, it makes compelling listening. 

I never fully appreciated the lengths to which sports producers introduce a sense of hyper-reality into our living rooms. Their aim is to make the experience much better than being there in person. The cameras are up close to the action, the microphones strategically positioned to pick up the nuances of the play, and at times, sound effects are introduced because the real effects are, well, not good enough. This might seem like cheating, but sports broadcasters will tell you that some of their biggest competitors are video game designers. TV audiences now expect experiences at least as good as what gamers will encounter. It’s a kind of arms race, with both teams borrowing ideas from each other so that the end effects excite us in a way the actual event might not.

We have become accustomed to the hyper-real. While long the stock-in-trade of Hollywood with their foley artists and special effects departments, such enhancements are now available to the public for free. Photos are now routinely scrubbed and filtered by the likes of Photoshop and Instagram. Home movies are slowed down, sped up and dispensed of shake and stutter. We don’t see this as a problem because it’s all about pleasuring the senses and getting across the desired intent than portraying hum-drum reality. Perhaps there will be a backlash to this, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Hyperreality is likely to push us in directions we cannot imagine today. It’s going to be a fascinating journey. 

If I were to make a speculative prediction, it would be that we are heading towards an all-seeing future. Every event of our lives will be recorded and available to us (and possibly others) for instantaneous playback. The Cloud will become the repository of all information, recorded in high-definition video, possibly from multiple angles, for us all to dip into as we see fit.  Maps, street views and the insides of many buildings will be available to us in real time. An army of cameras, satellites and other sensors will provide continuous streaming information to those that can afford it.

Allied to data, there will be a whole chain of semantic processes working in the background, making sense of this data: a bit like the way tags work on YouTube videos or blogs. Through this approach, recall can work correctly.

We won’t need to type in information. We can talk to the Cloud whenever we want. Perhaps it will even be able to anticipate our needs, as it takes control over areas of our lives, such as driving to work.

There would be no need for eyewitness testimony. We’ll see things as they happened. There would be no need for memory: you just set the pointer at a particular date and time, and press play. Perhaps contracts, even money, will be obsolete: since we can play back agreements as they happen.

Such change will not come overnight. Privacy, security, copyright, evidence, equality, democracy: all will need massive in the face of ever improving technology and visibility into our daily lives. Heated arguments about the State’s rights to our information will continue to rage.

It might sound crazy, if we were not three-quarters of the way there already.

Friday 10, 2020. Many people will wake up to the alarm clock, listen to the latest news as they get their breakfast ready, drive to work and put in a good 8 to 10 hours in either front of their computer, serving customers or in long, drawn out meetings. They will then drive home to their families, have dinner, get their kids ready for bed, surf the Net, and relax in front of the TV. Later on, a few brave souls may head down to the pub for a drink before they finally call it a day.

This is likely to be the most accurate prediction you can make about life ten years from now. In other words, 2020 will be pretty much the same as it is today*. If we look back to the turn of the Millennium, many of us had mobile phones, Internet access, TV dinners, recycling bins and telephone conferencing. The world is as it was then, with the addition of a few new gadgets, a better Internet experience, text messaging and wireless broadband. The world today is 2000 with more toys, in other words. Most change, when it comes to the inexorable rise of technology in our lifestyles, comes along slowly. When making predictions about everyday life in the next 10 years, it is imperative that we keep this glacially slow pace of technology adoption in mind. Many of the changes that will made the difference in ten year time are probably already around us in one form or another, but it will take most of the decade to make them widespread.

But life will not stay still, so here are my guesses as to the big changes over the next ten years.

-:-

Internet everywhere.

By 2020 most gadgets you will buy – TV’s, radios, music centres, cars, cameras, domestic appliances and many children’s toys – will be Internet enabled in one form or another. Bandwidth will have improved greatly and most content will be in the “cloud”, i.e. stored and managed remotely.  Connectivity will be wireless and largely invisible to the user. Most of the stuff we watch and listen to: videos, music, TV programmes, etc. will be downloaded digitally and instantaneously.

It’s likely that the Internet will also have changed. While it will more ubiquitous, it will also be more subtle. The central access point to the Internet – the web browser – will still be there, but there will be multiple other ways of interacting with the Net. The Internet will be centrally involved in feeding multiple different applications and devices, presenting information relevant to the experience expected from those technologies. Doing business on the Internet will not be as simple as getting a web-page together, as customers will expect information in a variety of different ways.

A new way to shop.

I think RFID – Radio Frequency ID tags – will come into their own in the next decade. Bar codes will disappear, to be replaced by tags that will identify themselves wirelessly at the checkout. With this, supermarkets will change dramatically. You simply pick what you want, put it into a trolley, pass a radio scanner and instantly collect the receipt. No more checkouts, no more queues. Just pick, pay and pack. This technology has been around for ages, but it remains expensive for widespread retail use. We should expect this barrier to be overcome in the next few years, resulting in a transformation of the shopping experience.

The rise and rise of Touch

One of the coolest technologies to gain prominence in the last decade has been touch sensitive surfaces. So far, the smartphone is the greatest beneficiary of this technology but we should expect it to expand rapidly beyond these bounds before the decade is out. The real benefit of touch technology is that it makes more use of limited or wasted “real estate” within any hardware product. With Touch, the keyboard becomes a writing or drawing pad, while enclosures begin to resemble skin (think of the applications for kids toys).

Electric cars

I expect that the next decade will be a big one for green technology generally and for electric cars in particular. There will be a noticeable transition from petrol to electricity, probably towards the end of the decade once the infrastructure becomes more commonplace. Some governments (Israel and Denmark, for example) have already committed funds to a suitable infrastructure, carbon credits already in force in many countries will make electric cars an increasingly attractive proposition and car manufacturers are beginning to roll out new electric cars. This could be the most noticeable achievement of the Teen decade.

Space travel

For some, this might be the lost decade for space travel. The Space Shuttles are to be moth-balled later this year and the world will need to wait five to seven years before NASA is ready to launch replacement craft. However more countries than the USA are capable of throwing large payloads into space, so progress will continue steadily throughout the next ten years with the Chinese and Indians joining the space race in earnest. An area to watch closely is private space travel. I don’t foresee mass transportation on private space vehicles this decade, but the 2020’s are a different story. It’s entirely feasible that people will routinely travel from London to Beijing in less than an hour aboard hypersonic jets skimming above the atmosphere. As for the Moon and Mars? We need a few decades more.

Geno and Nano

I’m going to stick my head well inside my shell and opine that the next decade will not be the decade where we see designer babies,  gray goo or a clone slave underclass appear. There will be progress – lots and lots of progress – but regulatory issues and public pressure might significantly delay mainstream adoption. Where I do see progress is in medicine. I think that there are going to be some big breakthroughs in the treatment of neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. We should also see big advances in the growing and transplanting of replacement tissues from stem cells and some modest yet important improvements in cancer therapies.

The black swans

In 1960, few would have predicted that men would be walking on the Moon by the end of the decade. In 1990, mention of the Internet would have been met with blank stares from most people. It’s likely that, sometime during the next ten years, new inventions that none of us are thinking about will capture our imagination and dominate public discourse. Like any new technology, the hype will greatly exceed any immediate benefits, but whatever the effect, it is likely that we will be much more concerned about these in 2020 in the same way that Twitter and Facebook are today.

-:-

So, these are a sample of my predictions for the next decade. Will they come true? Well, at the very least, it will be fun to open up my Internet reader on Friday 10th 2020 and guffaw at my naive speculations from ten years before. What do you think? Am I missing something obvious that you believe will be huge in the next decade?

* Apocalyptic predictions not withstanding..

(Photo by SanFranAnnie)

No Googling

The table quiz is under threat. For many years, table quizzes (or pub quizzes) have been a terrific way to raise funds for good causes. However the format needs an urgent rethink, otherwise this source of evening enjoyment will die very quickly. The immediate reason? Cheating. The root cause? Google and Smartphones.

If you are not from Ireland or the UK, you may be unfamiliar with table quizzes, so here’s the skinny.  A large group of participants meet together in a pub. They are split into teams of four people. A quiz master reads out a series of questions that the teams must answer in a short period of time, 2 to 3 minutes usually. Usually the questions are batched together in rounds – maybe 5 questions at a time so that the teams can get an indication of how well (or how badly) they are doing. There are typically 10 rounds overall. The team that gets the most answers right wins. It’s good fun – a combination of teamwork, competitiveness and perplexing problems to while away many a dark Irish winter (or summer) evening.

Enter the smartphone. Smartphones make it pretty easy to cheat. Just log on to Google over a mobile network – ask your question, and the answer will be shown to you within seconds. It’s quick, it’s covert, and it gives those who possess an iPhone or comparable device a huge advantage over less technologically savvy (or more scrupulous and honest) teams.

Almost any what, who, why, where and how question can be answered immediately through a Google search, but it doesn’t stop there. Google translates into multiple languages, it performs simple arithmetic, it can give you synonyms and dictionary definitions, unit conversions and it will tell you what happened on a particular date in time. Most table quiz questions should be answerable in less than half a minute through a quick search of the Internet. 

Yes, yes. Quizmasters will ask that mobile phones are not used, but it’s increasingly unlikely that such requests can be effectively enforced, particularly if you have a large group involved. Access to the mobile internet is extremely easy these days. It’s better instead that quizmasters adapt their questions to the new reality.

Here are a few ideas that will help to limit the power of smartphones in table quizzes.

1) Use more picture questions. Picture rounds are already a staple of most table quizzes, but it becomes more important when hidden smartphones are being used. While words and descriptions can be easily googled, photographs of faces, objects and places are less easy to look up (for the time being). 

2) Use more audio soundbites. Again, sounds are common in table quizzes, and again they are difficult to google. Be aware though! Music, particularly if it is played for a long period of time, can be identified using applications like Shazam. Also be aware that common soundbites, like “One small step for man”, or “I have a dream” can be easily googled. You need to keep your soundbites relatively difficult to uncover, so that people have to concentrate on the sound and the voice, rather than the content. Also consider non-human sounds, such as birds, animals or machinery.

3) Get them to solve puzzles. Examples include:

  • Odd One Out. Give people three or four names or words and ask for them to identify the odd one out. Yes, people can google for more information, but the chances are that they will soon run out of time. It’s one of those things that you either get immediately, or you will have difficulty resolving.
  • Complete the sequence. Try some simple sequences, based perhaps on simple formulas or less obvious sequences like [7,4,1,8,5,2]*. . Just make sure that your sequence isn’t too obvious! Offset it by a fixed number perhaps. For instance [2, 4, 8, 16, 32..] is pretty obvious, but [5,7,11,19,35..] is less clear, even though it’s the same sequence offset by 3.
  • Maths problems – Yes, the ones we were subjected to when we were yinglings. Jim has 70 squaggles. Each squaggle is composed of 13 mirdles. Jim gives 10 squaggles to Bill who only wants 25 mirdles and who gives 3/5 of the remainder to Bob. How many mirdles does Bob have? It’s simple algebra but it will drive the smartphone cheats crazy.
  • Lateral Thinking Problems. These are the type of stories that have a very easy answer if you question your assumptions. For instance “A man who was not wearing a parachute jumped out of a plane. He landed on hard ground and yet was unhurt. Why?” (OK, that one was easy, but more difficult questions are available in books such as this one, and will keep the audience thinking)

4) Go Local. Although general knowledge is likely to be prominently displayed on the Internet, often local knowledge is more patchy. What is the name of the pub on the corner of Main St and High St? Who is the former principal of the local school? What club won the local athletics contest in 2005? Just check that such information is not already available on Google or Wikipedia before setting questions.  

5) Rapid-fire rounds. Give people more questions than they could possibly handle in a short period of time. Ask 20 or 30 questions in a single round. (It can be provided to them on a piece of paper). Yes, people could use a smartphone to answer the questions, but the entry of the questions alone will lose them time. This will put them at a disadvantage compared to more knowledgeable teams. 

6) Individual rounds. Nominate a member of each team to walk up to the platform and answer a series of questions in full view of the audience. Not so easy to use  a smartphone when every other team is looking at you!

Can you think of any other ways to keep Google out of the table quiz? Let me know!

* By the way, how did you get on with this sequence?

In the last few years, some delightful technologies have become available to consumers, driving a new boom in electronics sales. These technologies include touch-screen, wireless Internet, accelerometers and global positioning systems to mention the key ones. I happen to be writing this blog entry on a device that has all of these and more.

But what is next? Have we reached some sort of technological pinnacle now? I think not.

I’m eagerly awaiting one big technology to arrive soon. Proximity sensing.

I’m slightly myopic, but most people don’t realize this. They never see me with glasses on. The mundane reason is that I have an amazing propensity to lose glasses. Most glasses I have ever had take their leave from me after a few months, with the last set disappearing forever on a plane back from the US. What I would love is a device that monitors their position and alerts me if they are no longer in my immediate viscinity.

I can conceive of other applications immediately. Finding golf-balls when they get lost in the rough. Keeping tags on errant toddlers or pets. Finding the car in the car park. Maybe even finding partners to all the odd socks in the house..

The key to such a technology is a thingy known as a RFID tag. It’s a small transmitter that can be attached to any object, so that its location can be determined by an appropriate detection device.

RFID’s are still somewhat expensive, which explains why we don’t see them in the shops just yet. They are already being used in certain specialist industries and their size and cost is reducing yearly. I can concieve a time, however, when rolls of tiny, machine washable or transparent RFIDs will be bought in shops for just a few pence each, or that they will already be embedded in most items bought in the shops.

The detection devices are also relatively straightforward, using simple triangulation to pinpoint objects. Indeed a small pocket device such as a mobile phone should be more than adequate to find missing things quicky.

Add in some some software to determine specific rules, associate items to the tags and enable specific applications and those missing socks will be a thing of the past.

I’ve just noticed that if you type a phrase such as this into a Google search bar :-

convert 189.54 euro into GBP

it comes back with an answer for you straight away.

picture-1

Pretty handy for an international jet setter like me, I would say.

Now here is something I definitely didn’t have when I was a kid: YouTube Mobile. 

A couple of nights ago, I was reading a book on Space to the kids. Up came a pop-up Space Shuttle (which one of the twins attempted to rip before I quickly averted his hand). We then had a discussion on the Space Shuttle and then I took out my iPhone, logged on to YouTube and showed them a space shuttle launch for real.

Their jaws dropped.

In the last few nights we have discovered the ISS, Pyroclastic Flows, the Moon landings and Tyrannosaurus Rex and sun spots all from the safety of their bunk-beds. 

Then a few nights later I was reading my eldest son a book on Mexico. We came to a page where the voladores swing around a high pole on a rope tied to their legs. Out comes the iPhone, YouTube is called up and in seconds we are seeing it happening on video. 

He yawned and muttered something like “whatever” under his breath… 

Anyway, moody 9 year olds aside, I think it’s really cool.

I’m like a little kid at the moment. I’ve just recieved an iPhone and I have been busy over the last two days tinkering around with it. It’s an incredible little box of tricks.

The basic features of the phone are excellent, what with touchscreen and GPS and the Accellerometer etc.. However, what makes the phone really stand out are the huge number of apps that can be downloaded for it. I have downloaded a few games, installed planetarium software, turned it into a remote control, and I am writing this posting from the new WordPress app despite the fact that I have no connection to the Internet.

And no, I haven’t yet made a phone call with it…

%d bloggers like this: