Using past and present to predict the future

I’ve long watched what people are watching on TV (nostalgia + dystopia), and at movies (safe sequels) to ponder emerging trends. I also keep an eye on what type of books are on the best-seller lists (cooking, monsters, travel, rebalancing) and even what slogans people have on their t-shirts (100% human), which can be especially useful to spot emerging weak signals.

However, over in Germany this idea has been made more rigorous. (Thanks to Aifric for spotting this btw).

Using novels to predict the future.

Enough already

Seems the BBC is now acting like a tabloid newspaper. How about a bit of proper context and analysis. Enough of this scaremongering. Yes it’s a concern that the US and Russia are led by ultra-nationalists and there are far too many actors on the world stage. And yes there are too many things happening at once.A major miscalulation is possible. But Putin isn’t stupid. All he wants is his old sphere of influence back. Maybe a buffer against the US and NATO too.

This is a bit of a jump, but expect to see ultra-nostalgia kick off anytime soon. Comfort foods, comfort films, comfort TV, comfort decor. It’s back to the future folks. As I said in one of my books, in the future the past is always present. Never truer than right now.

Full image here.

Emerging socks & technology

Screen shot 2014-06-23 at 07.23.35

Saw these in a secret underground bunker. OK to say what they, but not where they’re from. Blast proof socks – presumably part of an emerging line of blast-proof underwear. Thing is that when soldiers step on mines and IEDs they can get there feet blown off. These socks are made from kevlar (plus a few other things) and stop the foot being blown off or, at least, keep all the bits in one place. They could do with a wash though.

Formulae for future conflict

Some time ago I wrote about a formula that might predict future revolutions (essentially the number of men aged 16-24 in a population x the level of education x internet access x level of corruption/ bureaucracy/censorship x food prices x unemployment).

Anyway, a new formula has come my way via the magazine Nature, which is said to predict similar forms of conflict. The basic idea is that a hidden order underlies any conflict with the exception of conflicts that involve two sides of similar strength. The study, by Neil Johnson and colleagues at the University of Miami, says that time interval between attacks remains relatively constant, which allows for intervention.


This is a classic. A while ago I wrote about a robot called EATR – an autonomous robot that wanders around the battlefield looking for bio-mass (i.e. vegetation) to turn into fuel, which in turn charges its batteries and those batteries belonging to human soldiers in the nearby area. Here’s how the company behind the machine describes it:

“An autonomous robotic platform able to perform long-range, long-endurance missions without the need for manual or conventional re-fueling, which would otherwise preclude the ability of the robot to perform such missions. The system obtains its energy by foraging – engaging in biologically-inspired, organism-like, energy-harvesting behavior which is the equivalent of eating. It can find, ingest, and extract energy from biomass in the environment (and other organically-based energy sources), as well as use conventional and alternative fuels (such as gasoline, heavy fuel, kerosene, diesel, propane, coal, cooking oil, and solar) when suitable. For example, about 150 lbs of vegetation could provide sufficient energy for 100 miles of driving, depending on circumstances.”

The only issue is, would dead bodies (or someone in a very heavy sleep) count as bio-mass? Also, check out the chainsaw in the illustration. Be afraid, be very afraid….

Illustration above from Image to left from i09.

More at i09 Robot Zombies..



The Future of War

Worth watching (via Andrew Crosthwaite). Click here (6 minutes).

BTW, here’s something on the future of war forecasting from What’s Next back in 2005.

In the future there will be pollution forecasts, disease forecasts and war forecasts. In fact war-forecasting is already a growth industry with a number of players in countries such as the US, Germany and Australia. One of the leading systems used to predict military outcomes is a bit of software called the Tactical Numerical Deterministic Model – TNDM – which is produced by a military think-tank called the Dupuy Institute in Washington DC. TNDC is the mother of all battle simulators, largely because it successfully predicted the outcome (particularly casualty rates and duration) of the first Gulf War and also the Bosnian conflict.

The accuracy of TNDM is largely due to the fact that the Dupuy Institute sits on a mountain of historical data from previous wars and has spent time analysing the influence of such factors as rainfall, foliage cover, length of supply lines, tank positions, river widths, muzzle velocities, density of targets and the nature of the regimes participating in the conflict (democratic or authoritarian). The result is a mathematical model that predicts outcomes, which is in turn used to deliver a three-page report on casualty rates, equipment losses, capture rates and terrain gains. What’s even more astonishing is that this software is for sale at a cost of US $93,000 (including instruction, a year’s technical support and a newsletter).

Interestingly though, most people prefer the human touch and opt for the predictions plus human analysis. A future challenge is to predict the outcomes of guerrilla conflicts and the Dupuy Institute is apparently working on this. Given the success of business books like ‘The Art of War’, one wonders how long it will be before a corporation like Microsoft develops a similar model to predict the outcome of innovations or commercial strategies.

War and the Art of Innovation

Few quick snippets plus something longer to ponder…

I forgot to say how impressed I was with the Global and Mail whilst in Canada recently. This is a really good newspaper. Couple of interesting thoughts from Tuesday’s edition. Firstly, an article on internet reform by Jeffrey Hunker (author of Creeping failure: How We Broke the Internet and What We Can Do to Fix It). He points out that in the case of the cyber superworm Stuxnet and the WikiLeaks inspired ‘hacktivist’ attacks on US government and commercial sites the perpetrators are still unknown. In other words, events in cyberspace can have “serious consequences, yet are largely outside the framework of accountability.” He goes on to liken the internet to London during the time of Dickens. A rapidly growing and chaotic place filled with crime and ineffective government. Consequences? I’ve spoken about this before, but one implication is not that the internet will break technically, but that people may simply get fed up with using it.

Other quick snippets from the Globe and Mail. One, the global population will hit 7 billion in the second half of 2011. Two, scientists have found that people forced to turn off mobile phones, email and the internet suffer from psychological and physical symptoms similar to those experienced by drug addicts going ‘cold turkey’

OK, now the long one to ponder. I’ve just written this for the next issue of What’s Next (up next week). Read it and then ask yourself whether this has any implications for large firms fighting other large firms using innovation as a key weapon.

The world, in case you haven’t noticed, is suffering from two simultaneous shocks. The first is technological. The development of the internet is reshaping the world in a manner similar to the industrial revolution two centuries earlier. The second is global instability. The end of the Cold War is a prime cause of this, but globalisation, deregulation and resources are also playing their part. Nevertheless, the thinking within the US military is largely unchanged. For example, the US has spent around $1 trillion ($3 trillion according to one estimate) on the war in Iraq and is now “close to punching itself out” according to John Arquilla, a Professor of defence analysis at the US Naval Postgraduate School.

The fundamental issue is scale. The dominant doctrine within the Pentagon is still “shock and awe” and, to achieve overwhelming force, the US spends billions on big ships, big guns and big battalions. This might work if you are fighting a conventional war, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that it doesn’t work very well against networked adversaries. In the UK there has been both shock and awe that UK defence budget is being cut. The thinking is that one can only perform worse with less. Similarly, in the US, there are calls for more and more soldiers to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But perhaps bigger isn’t always better. Small units of soldiers can be highly effective, especially when they are connected to other small units or small numbers of aircraft. This is rule one of John Arquila’s new rules for war – that many and small beats few and large. After all, what exactly is the point of giant aircraft carriers in an age of supersonic anti-ship missiles? Hundreds of small craft equipped with smart weapons are likely to be more effective.

Similarly, being in love with expensive and sophisticated weapons is all very well but many smart systems are almost unworkable in many of the situations that Western armies now find themselves. Rule two is that finding matters more than flanking. Flanking has worked historically, but the game has now moved on. Think, for example, of the 400,000 Iraqi troops that just “melted away” when confronted by US forces in 2003 only to reappear as hit and run insurgents in the months and years afterwards.

The idea here is that rather than being organised as a “shooting organization” the military needs to be redesigned around a “hider-finder dynamic” and act as a “sensing organization” too. After all, before you fight an enemy you have to find them and this is becoming increasing difficult when enemies use networking technologies to rapidly communicate and organise themselves.

Rule 3 is that swarming is the new surging. Swarming is the type of attack used by terrorists coming at a target from several different directions at once or attacking several targets simultaneously. The November 2008 Mumbai attack conducted by just two five-man teams is an example, as is the Hezbollah conflict with Israel during the summer of 2006.

Despite this, US Grand Strategy is still configured to deal with a single large threat rather than multiple, smaller or simultaneous threats. In a networked age, even very small teams armed with the most basic weapons can cause huge amounts of damage, but most military planners seem to be unaware of this or, if they are aware of it, are failing to act on this knowledge. There is a saying that generals are always fighting the last war. Seems some of them are still planning it too.

BTW, a final thought. I note that a Russian investment firm has taken a stake, along with Goldman Sachs, in Facebook. So the Russians now have in interest in a company that has intimate details on 550 million people including a large chunk of Americans. Hey, who needs thousands of spies when millions of people just tell you everything without you asking! Given the recent uproar about foreign firms buying strategically important US (physical) assets I’m rather surprised that this wasn’t stopped.