Couple of notes from the Long Now Foundation health panel, both regarding how we aggregate and distribute knowledge.

Alison O’Mara-Eves (Senior Researcher in the Institute of Education at University College London) told us about the increasing difficulty of producing systematic reviews. Systematic reviews attempt to synthesise all the research on a particular topic into one view point: how much can you drink while pregnant, what interventions improve diabetes outcomes, etc.  These reviews, such as  venerable Cochrane reviews,  are struggling to sift through the increasing volumes research to decide what actionable advice to give doctors and the public. The problem is getting worse as the rate of medical research increases (although more research is obviously a good thing in itself).  We were told the research repository Web of Science indexes over 1 billion items of research. (I’m inclined to question what item is since there must be far less 100 million scientists in the world, and most of them must have contributed less than 10 items, however I take the point that there’s a lot of research.)

Alison sounded distinctly hesitant about using automation (such as machine learning) to assist in selecting papers to be included in a systemic review, as a way of making one of the steps of the process less burdensome. The problem is transparency: a systematic review ought to explain exactly what criteria they use to include papers, so that criteria can be interrogated by the public. That can be hard to do if an algorithm has played a part in the process. This problem is clearly going to have to be solved, research is no  use if we can’t sythesise it into an actionable form. And it seems tractable – we already have IBM Watson delivering medical diagnoses, apparently better than a doctor. In any case, I’m sure current systematic reviews of medical papers are carried out using various databases’s search function – who knows how that works or what malarkey those search algorithms might be up to in the background?

Mark Bale (Deputy Director in the Health Science and Bioethics Division at the Department of Health) was fascinating on the ethics of giving genetic data to the NHS, through their program the 100,000 genomes project. He described a case where a whole family who suffered with kidney complaints were treated due to one member having their genome sequenced, thus identifying a faulty genetic pathway. Good for that family, but potentially good for the NHS too – Mark described the possibility that by quickly identifying the root cause of a chronic, hard to diagnose ailment through genetic sequencing might save money too.

But – what of the ethics? What happens if your genome is on the database and subsequent research indicates that you may be vulnerable to a particular disease – do you want to know? Can I turn up at the doctors with my 23 and Me results? Can I take my data from the NHS and send it to 23 and Me to get their analysis? What happens if the NHS decides a particular treatment is unethical and I go abroad to a more permissive regulatory climes? What happens if I have a very rare disease and refuse to be sequenced, is that fair on the other sufferers? What happens if I refuse to have my rare disease sequenced, but then decide I’d like to benefit from treatments developed through other people’s contributions? I’ll stop now…

To me the part of the answer is that patients are going to have to acquire – at least to some extent – a technical understanding of the underlying process so they can make informed decisions. If that isn’t possible, perhaps smaller representative groups of patients who receive higher levels of training can play into decisions. One answer that’s very ethically questionable from my perspective is to take an extremely precautionary approach. This would be a terrible example of the status quo bias, many lives would be needlessly lost if we decided to overly cautious. There’s no “play it safe” option.

It’s interesting that with genomics the ethical issues are so immediate and visceral that they get properly considered, and have rightly become the key policy concern with this new technology. If only that happened for other new technologies…

The final question was whether humanity would still exist in 1000 years – much more in the spirit of the Long Now Foundation. Everyone agreed it would be, at least from a medical perspective, so don’t worry.




I went to see Noel Sharkey, Steven Hailes and Liam Young discussing drones this morning. The first topic broached was politics and military drones – which (rightly) is the dominant discussion in the media. This aside, here are the ideas I found most interesting.


Drones are like mobile phones

For me the most fertile territory was Liam Young’s imaginative discussion of the distant future (don’t say blue-sky thinking, don’t even let it cross your mind…). He talked us through Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today’s Electronic Counter Measures drone mesh network, which could be deployed to provide WiFi when a government has tried to sever the Internet connection, which they frequently do at times of civil instability.

He compared the potential ubiquity of drones to that of mobile phones, bits of tech so commonplace they become ephemeral and melt into the background. I found this the most striking thought of the whole talk, though I think I took it in a slightly different direction than intended.

Few technologies have penetrated further into the developing world than the mobile phone. Amazingly remote locations have mobile phone signal and a large user base. This must be in part because relatively little infrastructure is required.

Expanding the analogy, mobile phones masts are small ‘dots’ of infrastructure that function, to some extent, independently, where fixed phone connections require extensive ‘lines’ of infrastructure that break if any link in the chain breaks.

Perhaps drones stand in the same relation to roads as mobile phones do to fixed line connections. They are a resilient means of transportation that doesn’t require a large physical network to function. I’m not the first person to have this thought – a Google funded project called Matternet is actually playing out this idea. At the moment their tiny drones have a small payload, but this could be very different. The military already use drones with significant payloads to resupply remote bases.

Drones not in the city

Flowing from the previous point, why do we so often think of drones in the city? This must be the most hostile environment for them – obstacles, high population density, busy air space and an already established transport infrastructure. They might be of more utility in remote places. In the European alps its already quite common to have bulky building material delivered by helicopter.

What is it like when drones fight?

A final thought that caught my attention was a question from the audience – when will military drones start fighting each other? Noel Sharky suggested it will be a few years yet. This is because the ground-based pilots who fly drones are generally about 4 seconds behind what’s actually happening. A long time in combat – enough to make them rubbish in a dog fight. At the moment, they don’t have algorithms to autonomously engage each other, but in the future they might.

Sharky then mused about what might happen if two algorithms fight – and pointed out that then answer is very hard to predict. We have some experience of this. In 2010, high frequency trading algorithms – which are absolutely in combat with one another – went nuts. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 10% of it’s value. Nobody knows why – a bizarre interaction between trading robots spontaneously collapsed the market. Fortunately it recovered within minutes.

Similarly, a robot trader on Amazon tried to sell a book for $23 million dollars, after accidentally getting into a race with another algorithm.

If this can happen in the well defined world of online market places, we can only guess at what could happen in the literally explosive realm of aerial combat.

Drones are over-regulated

The example given was flying a drone over the Thames. This requires one to seek permission from two borough councils, the River Authority, Air Traffic control, the Civilian Aviation Authority and the police. This still only allows you to fly 500m and up to a 400ft ceiling. I presume as the utility of drones increases there will be pressure to relax this bureaucratic burden.

Drones don’t fly for long, yet

Another pragmatic fact that I didn’t know was that nearly all the small helicopter drones you see on YouTube have a flight time of around 10 minutes, which is perhaps near the lower limit of what’s useful.

Here is the cat on a Roomba, which also came up.



Dr Ha-Joon Chang recently gave a talk at the LSE about his book 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. One of his ideas is that the Internet has done less to change the world than the washing machine. It’s a waggish claim, in his lecture he gave it a fond mention.

The claim works like this: the washing machine is short hand for domestic appliances, whose widespread use in the US, Europe and now the world have allowed women leave the home and enter the workplace: surely a huge achievement.

By comparison Wikipedia doesn’t seem so exciting. But what he hasn’t taken into account is that the Internet has a world-changing effect on intellectual property – and for the better.

A societies approach to Intellectual property has to balance two things:

  1. Incentivising companies to invent things by allowing them to earn money from their inventions. Who is going to spend time inventing if someone will immediately copy your idea?
  2. Not allowing companies that have invented something to hold society to random. If someone invents something essential and has a water-tight protection for it they can charge any amount they like for it.

So the optimal situation would be one where every company thought that they were going to make a fortune from their next idea, but as soon as they have the idea they are forced to share it with the world without charging (too much) money for it.

That sounds impossible. You could perhaps fool a company into innovating once, but then after you had forced them to publish the secret of their innovation they wouldn’t bother investing in further R&D.

But what if the innovation was stolen without their knowledge, manufactured in some far off land and then appeared on the market without the original inventor ever quite being sure how the idea got out, or if it had just been developed independently?

If that happened companies would continue to innovate, but without ever earning the huge monopoly profits that come from patent law and industrial secrets – like the disproportionate Tetra Pak fortune, earned by getting a patent on a particular shape of box.

That’s surely just what China’s industrial espionage program represents – a flow of knowledge from West to East, which is allowing China to lift itself out of poverty and making goods cheaper in the West. By all accounts China is hacking into all kinds of companies to steal their secrets.

As Martin Wolf has argued in his book Why Globalisation Works, information is the ultimate non-rivalry good, and it’s flow is a major cause of China’s rise.

And that flow is facilitated by companies in the West keeping their manufacturing secrets on computers connected to the Internet, where people in Shenzen can access them.

And that is why the Internet is more important than the washing machine. Not because of LOLcats, but because it lets information leak into developing countries.




This morning I went to a talk about devices which interface directly between the brain and computers. By way of an introductory remark Louise Marston noted that “for thousands of years humans have wanted to be able to communicate directly from one brain to another, which of course we can, by witting.” This set the tone for a discussion about the topic of technologically extending the functionality of our bodies.

The panel all agreed that it is a mistake to imagine that using (for example) brain implants to communicate with computers represented a sea change in our sense of self.

Anders Sandberg pointed out that we already use contact lenses and clothes to extend our personal capacities. What makes the ideas such brain implants alarming is that they represent a ‘transgression’ of our physical bodies. However, as Anders continued to point out, this transgression “makes good posters for films” but isn’t actually that practical, mostly because the dangers of infection and medical complication.

Instead he favoured subtle, low level interaction between brain and computer. He gave the beautiful example of his relationship with his laptop – he can subconsciously tell if the hard drive is ok from the noise that it makes.

Other examples include MIT’s “Sixth Sense“, while Professor Kevin Warwick showed a photo of a device that allowed users to get messages from their computer via tiny electric shocks on their tongue. Probably not to everyone’s taste.

Optogenetics a new approach again. This involves altering your genetic code so that your neurons respond to light and then shining a laser through your cranium to manipulate your brain’s behaviour.

While some of the technologies under discussion are not even on the lab bench yet, one technology already in medical use: Deep Brain Stimulation to treat Parkinson’s. An implant electrically stimulates the thalamus which reduces the  symptoms of the disease. Some patients go from being unable to dress themselves to being able to drive again. Impressive stuff, but it also reifies a moral thought experiment. Some people who use the device experience personality changes, for example becoming compulsive gamblers. Who would be responsible if the a patient had a personality change and went on to commit a crime? The device manufacturer, the surgeon or the patient? One guy is already suing his doctor because of gambling spree he claims was bought on by medication. 

Perhaps if we had more debates about these kinds of moral dilemmas we’d have a more nuanced understanding of what’s at stake. It drove me nuts during the riots that _every_ news presenter had to ask anyone that said anything explanatory about the cause of the riots “Are you making an excuse for them?”. Surely we can have a more sophisticated understanding of morals than that discourse seemed to indicate.

The panel itself had some interesting characters. Anders Sandberg comes from the grandly titled Future of Humanity Institute in Oxford, which is also home to a philosopher I particularly like –  Nick Bostrom. He’s very entertaining, I seem to remember that he did stand up for a while.  Bostrom also responsible for a confounding logical conclusion through his simulation argument.

Professor Kevin Warwick has had all manner of things implanted in him – a sure sign of commitment to your work. He told us he has a graph of the electrical activity associated with the onset of Parkinson’s on his living room wall to keep him focused on his work. Presumably he has a very understanding wife too – some of his experiments have included her, for example wiring their brains together to facilitate direct electrical communication. I once wrote a short story about exactly this. Unfortunately it’s not very good; I hope their experience went better than my short story.

Throughout the whole talk there was a tendency to wander between brain-computer interfaces and the subject of artificial intelligence. It seems to me that there isn’t really an obvious link between the two, except that they both endanger our sense of self. In many ways this is the most fascinating aspect of the technology. Most people distinguish between using technology to restore function that’s been damaged by disease or a car accident and the more treacherous moral territory where technology is used to exceed our ‘normal’ abilities.

We discussed that the use of a notebook as a memory aid would be could be considered a synthetic extension of our natural abilities, and that no one considers this to have moral implications. However, as I write this I’m quite happy to take advantage of a spell checker and my notebook.

It would feel weird if the computer started improving my prose by suggesting eloquent synonyms, or perhaps advised me that the above “not to everyone’s taste” pun is an execrable crime and should be deleted immediately. When computers, through implants, other types of brain-computer interfaces or artificial intelligence start doing things that we consider uniquely human – like creativity and punning – I think it really will cause us to radically reconceptualise ourselves. In this sense, I wonder if examples of using clothes or glasses to enhance ourselves are misleading, because they don’t strike at core concepts at what it is to be human. Or perhaps we’ll just get over it.

TechHubTuesdays is like a real version of Dragon’s Den, in that it’s not crafted into a TV friendly narrative, and like a fake Dragon’s Den, in that no-one is going to get any money.

In case you haven’t come across TechHub as a venue, it’s a desk sharing / office sharing space just of Old Street roundabout. It looks like it’s been squatted, with missing ceiling tiles and makeshift fittings. It’s actually quite expensive.

One Tuesday a month they offer a chance for startups (on this occasion one of them only 10 days old) to demo their sites to an audience and then answer questions from the floor. I’m not sure if there were any real investors present but the questions certainly had an edge of Den style alpha-male business-savvy rather than offering mutual support. Mostly, from what I know if these things, the questions were pertinent and the advice pragmatic.

Half of the six demos were about lowering friction in market places: Let Engine making lettings easier (they seemed very relaxed about the HUGE competition they face);  Your Job Done gets tricksy tasks performed by local handypeople, eg Ikea furniture assembly (a less competitive niche); and Rise Art which is a marketplace for upcoming artists ( being the obvious competitor).

One of the other three was Digital Shadow – a company that does something useful but boring to do with security (ie. most likely to make money) and the remaning two (Ekko and Mapchat) were to do with location based chat – something I just can’t get excited about.

Naming no names, I think some of the ideas were quite weak. I was amazed that they had the funding to get something together and also surprised that they’d managed to get as far as they had without becoming alarmed by the goliath competition many of them faced.

My favourite was Rise Art, a market place for up and coming artists. So far so good. Except Marcos Steverlynck described it as a place for good artists who are not good at using publicity to get attention to make their mark. Using their algorithms, image detection and an in-house panel of experts the site attempts to rank art by a combination of what’s best and what’s most popular.

I tried to explain that I thought that the ‘best’ art literally means nothing, it’s only popularity contest. I reckon they way society values art is one of those things which relies on us not having a complete understanding of it. If you wrote the algorithm that perfectly rated the quality of images then you’d either a) ruin art b) make people start evaluating art differently. Anyway, I didn’t get very far with this line of questioning before I started to look like a dick, so I gave up.

Whatever Rise Art does, and despite my philosophical reservations, it has a load of really great prints on it. It’s almost like my concerns about possibility of aesthetic objectivity don’t matter –

What I particularly loved about Rise Art was that it was motivated by the the desire to run a marketplace that really promoted quality. Having a panel of experts is something that I’m sure a lot of business minds would consider unscaleable, none the less they’ve gone for it. In addition, a number of revenue models were suggested by the audience which placed less emphasis on finding great art, but Marcos seemed understandably wary of these ideas.

In summary: TechHubTuesday provides as much beer and (good) pizza as you can consume for £6.80, and serves up a genuine slice of startup culture. On the other hand, it does have the drawback of highlighting that Startups are mostly destined to fail, and it’s also less ideological than other geek gatherings. Not recommended for a first date.

London hackspace is a club for people who want to make things out of electronics,  a perfect city-centre shed. The kind of place where Fred Dibnah would be comfortable if he were born in 1998. Rather than steam and wrenches and grease, there are soldering stations, 3D printers and circuit boards. During one of the presentations the inventor of a device called Nanode explained how much time he’d given to the project. Someone reverently whispered “he’s got a wife!”. I suspect he may have been in the minority.

Hackspace is important and it knows it, as was attested by an incongruously sharp suited man who ask questions about commercial prospects. It’s important because the residents are exploring the border between the physical and the virtual worlds. There’s a device that calculates the number of people in the building using two laser beams to detect comings and goings. A label on it says “do not hack”, presumably because if it didn’t someone would take it pieces and turn it into something else. It’s symbolic, even as you walk in your physical presence is turned into data.

There were two presentations, both on the theme of the turning the physical environment into data. Before we went I explained to two friends that came with me that I thought the Patchube website (talk No. 1) was like YouTube, only for physical data: a place where anyone can upload time-sequenced information about the temperature of their greenhouse, the location of their smart phone, whatever takes their fancy. This description turns out to be pretty accurate, but in fact that Patchube is pronounced Patch-bay, so I’d just made the analogy up. When the nuclear disaster happened in Japan, people started using Patchube to stream data from Geiger counters they had bought. Patchube served as an aggregator, and others produced visualisations of the data. The resulting maps of radiation were apparently more accurate than any data the government realised.

Patchube relies on there being lots of sensors in the world. The Nanode (Talk No. 2) is the answer to this problem. It is a circuit board about 5×5 cm with an ethernet connection so you can plug it into a network just like you would a laptop. What’s really special about it is that it runs as a web server, so if you know how to make web pages (which must be the most widespread type of programming knowledge) you can understand the data Nanode produces. It can send data straight to Patchube, at which point anyone can start using it. The Nanode retails at £18.

Invention is the mother of necessity, but it’s clear that Patchube and it’s associated network of sensors haven’t quite found their necessity yet. They’re exciting, but it’s hard to put your finger on why.

To give an example of permeability  between real and virtual, Usman Haque, the founder of Patchube told us of a gardener trying to grow a particular breed of Indian chillis, requiring very precise conditions. He has sensors measuring soil PH, humidity etc. What he needs is for someone in India to do the same, and then he will be able to copy the environmental natural conditions precisely, thus successfully growing his chillies. Physical stuff -> Data -> Physical stuff, it’s a fax machine for topsoil.

We accidentally turned up an hour early for the talks, and decided to get something to eat before we went in. Conversation turned to the hotdog man at Old Street (apparently they’re great hotdogs) who tweets his location. If we’d have known then what we know now, perhaps we’d have talked about him streaming data from his grill into Patchube to give it genuine physical context (queue length, remaining sausages etc.)

The Nanode is open source hardware,  in the sense that you can order the components and make it yourself using the freely available design. The process is such that it doesn’t involve any complex industrial tools.  Preassembled and kit versions will all be shipped from China. Some might think this morally dubious, but I’m impressed by the fact that Ken Boak, it’s inventor, went to stay in Shenzhen to meet the companies who would manufacture it. He also pointed out that, unlike some other similar devices, the Nanode will be affordable to Chinese workers who are paid in the region of £150 a month.

The missing killer app, the creative approach that will make Patchube’s practical appeal manifest, probably isn’t going to be thought up exclusively by the current Hackspace residents. Making it all function is nerd fun, but put to good use needs wider participation.

I know that that Hackspace does a lot of work to embed itself in the community, but I suspect a lot of people who would be fascinated by its multifarious possibilities don’t know about it. I mean this in kindness, but precisely because it’s where computers interface with the real world Hackspace should also be a place where nerds do the same.

An aside: The Hackspace toilets have a sign saying “Techhub memberships – please take one” above the bog roll. A rivalry? I’m backing Hackspace. (For the uninitiated, Techub is the more commercially oriented hot desking space for tech startups in Old Street.)

Whenever I watch a TED video it’s always so optimistic. Perhaps the independent TEDx event I attended in Manchester was under the pall of the city’s ceaseless rain, because it focused on some less than rosy home truths.

Content? Are you? Not if your job is to produce content. The anodyne catchall phrase for creativity as mediated by the web belies a bloodbath of job loss in newspapers, music and TV. The Evening Standard has recently accepted that what a consumer will pay for its product is zero, but it was last Friday at TEDx Manchester that a simple message came home to me.

It is conceivable that content is just something you can’t monetise in the era of the internet. Historically publishing has been fraught with similar difficulties, some of the world’s most influential books were utterly unable to remunerate their creators. Dr Johnson required a royal pension to keep him afloat despite having written the first full scale dictionary, likewise Diderot managed to remain poor after producing the West’s most famous encyclopaedia. No wonder publishers struggle when all the profundity they can muster is the Evening Standard. Are we simply returning to the equilibrium where creativity is next to impossible to convert into cash?

At TEDx Guardian Digital Editor Sarah Hartley articulated hyperlocal journalism (basically a local resident keeping a blog) as a possible future of news media, but she also admitted that she had no idea how journalists might earn a crust from this pursuit.

The next speaker to play into this theme was Marc Goodchild, head of Interactive for BBC childrens, who told us (amongst much else of interest) that at the age of 12 most kids started to predominantly spend their time on social networks and games – two areas where in effect you make the content yourself. He also told us that for the first time for children game play and internet use combined account for more hours of viewing than TV.

Hugh Garry, a Radio 1 producer, made the point even more firmly. His talk focused on a project that involved handing out mobile phones at festivals and asking people to record their experiences. The material was gathered into a film called “Shoot The Summer”. This exercise illustrated an interesting technical fact: mobile phones can produce footage that is perfectly watchable at cinema size.

A more subtle point was that most of the recipients of the mobile phones had a great natural sense of what would make interesting footage. If you don’t believe me, check out the film. And if you think that he just has the good bits from millions of hours of people taking drugs in tents, well, you’re right. That’s exactly the point – where is the space for the professional when a million amateur YouTube clips can be relied upon to produce a thousand gems? Of course, the content generation generation will also have a more natural sense of how to use a video camera compared with those for whom such devices are fresher developments.

Against a backdrop of the inevitable Twitterfall, and the equally inevitable Mancunian rainfall, the possibility of the end of professional content production took root in my mind. What medium might remain immune? Film? Surely this is the medium with the highest barrier to entry protecting its profits. Perhaps, but in a projected video of a JJ Abrahams TED talk we were all told we had no excuse not to be making films now the relevant hardware is so cheap.

I don’t really doubt that there are a number of ways for the paid journalist or film directors to survive, and it’s not news that the internet has put the squeeze on certain professions. There is a feeling though that we are just waiting for really cheap credit card transactions, or for Murdoch to spearhead online paid content, or for some other technological development to restore the professionals to their thrown. That might be misplaced optimism. Indeed some top journalists may be reduced to giving talks to a load half-arsed bloggers, perish the thought.