A new revolution
Given Moore’s law, and the proliferation of always-on, connected devices (computers, mobile phones, home entertainment systems, appliances, sensors, you name it), we, as human beings, the kings of adaptation and evolution, are about to be outdone – a new revolution has started. We cannot simply adapt our brain capacity and sensory array to match the speed with which technology exploded in the past few years. I know of a lot of parents unhappy their children spend time on computers, mobile devices and game consoles, more or less ignoring the “old ways” of playing sports, running around, climbing trees and getting grazed knees and elbows. I am one of them – but I admit I fully consider the possibility that , for my son, the ability to climb trees might be redundant and obsolete compared with his quick reactions gained during first-person shooters, or his ability to think outside the square, developed through playing quest-type games.
What am i saying? Simply put, if we don’t start seriously innovating in the automation area, we will be rapidly overwhelmed by the avalanche and complexity of information (think BIG, GIANT data with millions of inter-relationships and circular references – Mona Lisa – thousands of pen-strokes, we see the picture, but what does it mean?)
Not being myself a believer in our ability to develop true Artificial Intelligence (I think about this as similar to matching or exceeding the speed of light), I foresee a single path possible for our civilization, in terms of adaptation to this new global change – this is a two segment path: automation+augmentation.
The dawn of the industrial revolution was the end of the traditional agricultural and small manufacturing. It was a seismic wave for the entire world – traditional farmers have been dislocated and radically changed their life, their perception of reality, and their habits. They became factory workers for two reasons – they could not compete any longer with the machine-driven agriculture, and the return on their investment (effort versus monetary benefit) was much higher if they took a factory job in the city.
We are facing a similar disruption today. There are two camps – the people who get it, and the people who do not get it, being either oblivious or in denial. Knowledge is always power – the ability to drive and control technology, knowing what the masses don’t immediately, places one in a position of power. Automation and quick access to data, real-time data, has already been used for gaining an edge in trading, news processing and dissemination, and so on (Thompson Reuters, Sniper auctions). This also becomes then a question of ethics – is Darwinism unethical?. Bottom line is though, that we need to adapt – if we don’t, we will not survive – will not survive competing with one another, with other nations, and with other generations.
The first way we will adapt is to automated or semi-automate as much as possible around us. Manufacturing automation, already well on its way, started with visionaries like Henry Ford. While labour arbitrage still exists and is exploited on a large-scale today (and I HAVE SPENT nearly 2 years consulting in CHINA), it is, in fact, ALWAYS a temporary solution (eventually, the demand for labour will drive up the wages and cost of living, evening the odds). The only permanent and irreversible cost saving is robotics, automating the production lines, services, utilities. We’re fairly advanced and close to that goal today, as method and availability, but not adoption (I always wonder if this situation just reflects our selfish and short-sighted nature – big gains for short duration, and not moderate gains forever). But it will eventually come. Because robotics and manufacturing automation are computer-controlled and sensor driven, they ALREADY produce a large amount of data, most of which needs real-time or near-time analysis and interpretation (think airplanes and rockets on computer controlled autopilot, interpreting sensor data and making adjustments based on that interpretation in a continuous way). As automation proliferates, and the Internet of Things takes shape, this data will only increase.
I have been one of the few fortunate people to have a varied domain exposure throughout my IT career. I recall, back in early 2000s, working with a group of REAL ENGINEERS (design, electrical and mechanical – non IT) – I was involved first hand in automating several batch and discrete manufacturing workshop, using Ethernet PLC controllers, analogue to digital sensors, wireless, MS RDP Thin-client and Rockwell Automation software. What a bunch of driven and intelligent people can achieve when the sole focus is “get it done” is amazing. I understood, and accepted at that point, that what we name now the Internet of Things was already taking place, but in small, private and isolated networks (even back then, I designed the CONTROL and the DATA/CORE networks as segregated) which, eventually, will be joined by a revolution of the scale seen before only through the mass adoption of the Internet. The amount of data we were collecting via sensors from production lines, into Rockwell automation and in the SQL data warehouse was amazing. So nearly 10 years later, we’re about to see an atomic explosion in this field. With the breakthrough in bandwidth and cost of processors, it is NOT ridiculous to think one could run a datacentre as a solar-powered array of mobile devices.
We’ll get more machines, devices, sensors, producing more data. The speed of data generation, as well as the amount, will challenge the existing processing algorithms, as well as our own speed to absorb it. As a result, we will need to automate the automation – that is, we need to automate the data collection, processing and archival, as well as finding smarter algorithm to pre-process, recognise, and send the RELEVANT data for further human decision. I predict there will be a completely new IT industry focused on pre-processing, sorting and analysing data, similar to what banking automated credit-scoring does today. Siri and IFTTT are just very basic examples, in their infancy.
Takeaway: Automation is inevitable. It will continue to expand within the machine-level and robotics, as it has been since the late 1800s. In addition, the amount of data generated by the computers controlling and monitoring the robotics will required automation, at the data sorting, storing and semi-conscious decision-making, before human intervention is necessary to make the high level decisions. This is not just machine or process automation, but I am suggesting that data interpretation will eventually get automated and apply concepts like report on exception, event-driven decision pathways and autonomous data blob analysis, statistics and correlation. This semi-processed data, as well as the devices generating it, it will only continue to increase significantly. As humans, we will be overwhelmed by the raw or semi-processed data, and find ourselves unable to interpret it and use it for final decisions making, either real or near-real time, unless it gets simplified further – like generals in charge of ever-growing pyramids of machine soldiers: which brings me to the next point, the second half of the inevitable revolution – human augmentation.
Augmentation (human enhancement)
Next, secondary, naturally progressing and aligned to the processing of data, I believe we need, in order to survive as human species, the ability to control our evolution (yes, this means playing God). Either via augmentation (implants enhancing our ability to absorb, store AND/OR rapidly process information), or via genetic manipulation, the human enhancement is inevitable.
Frankenstein? Maybe… maybe not. I’d think of it as Superman. I recall one bad experience an early adopter of Google Glass had – so perhaps Google Glass was the first step in augmentation (via wearable/accessorizing). Will there be a segregation and division between human camps? Augmented versus naturals……If you could improve yourself, why not? After all, we’ve been familiar with and applying concepts like cosmetic surgery, body building, and NLP. So being able to receive implants that can allow you to plug in straight into the Internet 24/7, allowing you to organically interface with APIs for news, learning and e-services…why wouldn’t you? I recall the game Deus Ex, and a flurry of science fiction cyber-punk novels… and I guess the one everybody knows of is THE MATRIX. Jacked-in, plugged in, connected, immersed…same thing.
It’s easy to detect the humanity’s appetite for such augmentation – just look at the rapid adoption of mobile devices, the multitude of activities that we undertake with them, the complex physical and social networks we connect to, and the avalanche of data we receive and process from and on them. Implants, streamlining such interfacing and interaction, will be highly palatable to the majority of people: and especially to newer generations.
Takeaway: because we generate so much data, we need better ability to interpret, filter and optimise information streams. Still, the data we will need to live our lives and to fulfill opportunities will be too much for our traditional tactile and visual interfaces. While the concepts of portable and wearable computing are in their infancy (smart-phones, smart-watches, Google Glass), they will receive adoption at a high rate. But that will not be enough…so my prediction is that new, direct, neuro-driven interfaces between machines and humans will flourish in the next 50 to 100 years. We will all sport bio-cybernetic interfaces, and use wearable, upgradeable tech to augment our brain and abilities.
FINAL FAMOUS WORDS:
World, as we knew it, it’s about to end. We’re on the verge of a digital revolution which will forever change our species. Join it or get run over. While I guess each earlier generation saw the differences of the next, ours will be subjected to absolutely RADICAL changes – perhaps a new subspecies of humans, augmented with tech capable of rapid storage and processing of data from a permanently connected avalanche of information – tech that can do independent pre-processing and be delegated rights to make decision… something referred to in the SF genre already as “butlers”
PS: Yes, I’d volunteer for implants…
Until next time – R2D2