What’s Next issue 39 is up

Something from the latest issue of my What’s Next report.
Free as always. Click here for the link.

An emotional future.

Schools around the world have started to teach children computer coding on the basis they will have to program computers at work. It’s a logical but somewhat flawed idea.

First, although few people know it, there are already computers that can code themselves. Code that writes code. We will still need highly skilled top-level human coders in the future, but we might not need that many.

Second, teaching people how to think logically like machines is illogical given what computers are likely to be capable of one day. We should be doing the exact opposite. We should be teaching people how to behave totally unlike sterile number-crunching computers.

In 1983 Arlie Hochschild, sociologist, named invented the term ‘emotional labour’ to describe work that required a high level of emotional intelligence. For example, airline crew know how to deal with nervous or disruptive passengers. In 2015, a study by David Deming, an education economist at Harvard, discovered almost all new jobs created in the US from 1980 to 2012 required relatively high social skills.

AI and machine learning will edge into more routine, repetitive and logical work previously done by people. But human work will move further into areas that require empathy and perhaps some imagination, inspiration and persuasion. Machines are good at solving problems, but not especially good at inventing them and are almost useless at managing people or providing inspirational leadership.

Any job that involves caring for people, getting people to trust you or persuading people to do certain things they normally resist will be difficult to automate. Doctors, teachers, law enforcement officials and top-flight lawyers, for example, might be able to relax a tiny bit.

Even so, we don’t celebrate these kinds of jobs as much as we could. Caring is generally undervalued and underpaid in developed societies. Nurses, childcare and aged care workers often earn very little for their efforts. Indeed, most of the emotional work done in society is done for free, often by women and isn’t even regarded as real work. It also fails to count towards GDP.

We are on the cusp of machines that can give the appearance of being empathetic. Affective computers judge a user’s emotional state using biofeedback and adjust themselves accordingly. This could work, up to a point, but these machines will surely lack nuance or a deep understanding of human nature. Only a person can truly grasp how another person might feel, at a deep level.

This all offers a huge economic opportunity. First, we should start to recognise the true value of emotional work, to the economy and to society. Second, we should refocus our education systems away from teaching things that smart machines are already capable of (IQ) and towards the things they aren’t (EQ).

Empathy would be top of the list, although invention and inspiration wouldn’t be far behind. Educators and employers should place less emphasis on rote learning, short-term memory and exam success, and spend more time considering how to expand personality, persuasion, compassion and moral character.

What’s Next – issue 36

The new issue of my What’s Next trends magazine has just gone live. Find it right here.

Also, below, is a sneak peek of the new brainmail.

Have you heard of auxetic substances? Thought not. These are really new and really interesting materials that get thicker, rather than thinner, when stretched. Not only does physical form change when subject to external force, the material stores energy very quickly too. What could you possibly do with such materials? How about blast resistant curtains or dental floss that gets into the tricky bits?
Ref: Economist Technology Quarterly (UK)

Ever fancied a computer the size of a snowflake? Scientists around the world are working on tiny computers with skeleton operating systems that can report on conditions nearby. Powered by sunlight, vibrations or temperature change such dot-sized devices could monitor buildings or be injected into a tumour to monitor growth. Most useful of all, perhaps, people could embed motes into everything they owned in the physical world and then be able to conduct searches from them in virtual worlds. “Where are my keys?”
Ref: New Scientist (UK)

Is your boyfriend or girlfriend becoming more trouble than they’re worth? Or perhaps you’re not in a relationship, but the social (media) pressure to be coupled is just too much. Well a solution (some say) is at hand. For $24.99 a month, a Minnesota-based app allows you to have a relationship with a virtual boyfriend/girlfriend who not only texts you back, but will engage with you in conversation.
Ref: Daily Mail (UK)

A study by Ilsedore Cleeves at the University of Michigan says that half the water on earth is older than the sun, having been carried here as interstellar ice. The study also claims that water is far more common than we previously thought out in deep space.
Ref: New Scientist (UK)

You’ve no doubt heard of Tom’s shoes and perhaps One Water. How about Who Gives a Crap (sorry, but that’s what it’s called). 2.5 billion people (roughly 40% of the world’s people) don’t have regular access to a clean toilet, which means that diarrhea related diseases kill 2,000 children under 5 every day. Three enterprising Aussies have come up with a way to help. Order their toilet paper online, it gets delivered to your door and 50% of profits go to Wateraid to build clean toilets in the developing world.
Ref: Grapevine (Aus)

It seems that some people feel better inside if they spend time outside. Ecominds is a scheme run by the mental health charity Mind in the UK. Projects use nature, especially woodland activities, to help people with mental health problems improve their confidence and self-esteem. http://www.mind.org.uk/ecominds

If you’re a scientist drowning in digital data then Sciencescape might be for you. The site is essentially a “twitter-like experience” that allows academics to filter science stories using chosen categories. One aim is to allow people to ‘follow’ specific geographical places or even individual buildings.
Ref: The Scientist (US)

Following news that Google has withdrawn the Google Glass prototype from the market comes news that the Google X shunk works is developing smart contact lenses that can analyse a user’s tears to detect medical problems.
Ref: International Business Times (UK)

It’s not been widely reported but Google has been buying roughly one company per week since 2010. Not surprisingly, many of the companies and technologies are involved in search, or autonomous devices that one way or another finds out more about people, although a great many are in robotics and artificial intelligence.
Ref: Business Insider/CBC News

Danes that drink regular Sprite are 10% less likely to support the welfare system than Danes that drink Sprite Zero.
Ref: Harper’s (US)

In 1975, the cost of the fastest supercomputer was $5,000,000.
You can currently buy a used iPhone 4, which is roughly equal in performance (mflops), for $80 on eBay.
Ref: McKinsey/Brainmail

The cost of factory automation relative to human labour has fallen by half since 1990.
Der Spiegel (Germany)

In the UK two-thirds of 11-year-olds in the UK have a television in their bedroom.
Ref: The Times (UK)

The average automobile now contains 60 microprocessors.
MIT Tech Review (US)

6% of people living in New York that own a smartphone admit to having used it to make an online purchase during a funeral.
Ref: Harper’s (US)

There are now more Christians in China than members of the Communist Party.
Ref: Financial Times magazine (UK)

Worldwide, three times as many people die of obesity than die of starvation
Ref: Daily Telegraph (UK)

Since 2007, the number of prisoners in solitary confinement in the New York area has risen by 63%.
Ref: Harper’s (US)

It took 76 years for 50% of US homes to acquire a landline telephone. With cell-phones it took just 7.
Ref: PWC (UK)

“True love is a lack of desire to check one’s smartphone in another’s presence.” – Alain de Botton

From Counterculture to Cyberculture by Fred Turner (2006)

Nomcore (noun) describes people that wear unfashionable clothing as a fashion statement.
Ref: Daily Telegraph (UK)

WEB SIGHT OF THE MONTH: The Way back machine
What the web used to look like back in the day

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What’s Next issue 34

Screen Shot 2014-01-29 at 17.24.51


…is finally up. The link is right here.

Regular readers might notice that the nowandnext website has had a bit of a refresh too. The site is now more mobile and iPad friendly and hopefully cleaner too (it was never exactly cluttered but it’s now super simple). Hope you enjoy it.

Now…finding the time to do brainmail.


Love is a drug

Believe it or not issue 32 of What’s Next is almost done. Here’s a sneak peak…

In the midst of frantic emails and rushed meetings it’s easy to forget that we are animals at heart. Moreover, we are animals that have hardly changed over thousands of years. Yet we find ourselves in a world of our making that is far removed from that of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. In other words, the world around us has changed profoundly, but we are still largely stuck with the psychological habits and hubris of cave men and women. A case in point is mating and more specifically marriage.

Thanks to modern medical marvels we have managed to more than double the human lifespan. Historically, keeping alive was job number one for most people and we only reached an age of 35 on average. Relationships and pair bonding were therefore an urgent biological imperative, which usually ended with one or other partner dying. Given a lifespan of 35, around 50% of relationships would have come to an end within 15-years due to death.

This is interesting, because in modern society most marriages last for a similar amount of time – 11 years to be precise. So perhaps we were not designed to survive long-lasting relationships. Nevertheless, making marriages last longer would seem like a good idea, not least because longer-lasting relationships tend to create greater physical and mental well-being. They also cost society and the taxpayer considerably less in terms of everything from healthcare to housing.

So what’s to be done? One answer might stem from neurobiology. For instance, a study looking at the mating habits of monogamous prairie voles (Microtus orchrogaster) versus polygamous voles (Microtus montanus) found that the receptors for certain hormones are distributed differently between the two types of vole. In one experiment, putting a receptor gene from a faithful vole into the brain of a promiscuous relative resulted in a marked change of behaviour. The adulterous wandering vole became faithful and monogamous.

So clearly the question is whether or not a chemical fix might stop human marriages from falling apart, or at least make them last longer. What if, for example, you could buy a nasal spray over the counter, which encouraged trusting behaviour or could make couples talk to each other more? What if it were possible to extend the romantic phase of a relationship by popping a pill or to stop someone from straying elsewhere with an injection or a patch? It sounds fanciful, but it’s not. We already modify the behaviour of sexual offenders chemically, so why can’t we use an improved knowledge of the chemical composition of love and romance to bring people closer together for longer?

Trust me, this will one day be possible, although whether societies will allow it is another kettle of piranhas. For example, would neuro-enhancement or chemical modification make a relationship inauthentic? Could people become addicted to love and could chemically augmented relationships imprison individuals, even children, in bad relationships? Some people might argue that drink and drugs do this already, but in theory better ‘love drugs’ could release us from the shackles of our biological past and make us all more loving, trusting and happy.

Future forecasting

Apparently people trust weather forecasts more than they trust economic forecasts according to something I read this morning. Politicians and journalists rate even worse than economists, although they are more trusted than fortunetellers and astrologists. No mention was made of futurologists

What’s Next issue 31 is now up. Visit www.nowandnext.com

What’s Next issue 29 is up

So what are you waiting for. Read it now.

On a different topic, it was nice to read about the power of bare feet in the papers at the weekend. I remember reading some research many years ago that claimed that creativity increased by 10% in offices if staff took off their shoes off. Amanda Levete Architects in London seem to have taken the idea one step further by having a company policy to encourage architects to work barefoot.

I’m typing this with no shoes or socks on. I’m waiting for something to happen…

Cloudy thinking

Interesting comment from Matthew at PWC in Australia on my latest edition of What’s Next (now up). Apparently I’ve gone all gloomy!

“a new perspective on popular social trends based newsletters found that geography & environment does affect the writers outlooks. Despite the digitally connected world and the ability to read the same articles and journals anywhere on the planet, where they are read affects the tone of the synopsis and dissemination of those articles”