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 (art.sy 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 – http://www.riseart.com.

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.)

When I try to convince my friends of the merits of some new fangled internet thing, whether it’s about the relevance of Ushadi to international development or the usefulness of AMEE to engineers, I often feel that in their minds I’m being filed away into a particular box.

If you like Twitter, if you see potential for citizens to access government services via the web, if you blog, then you’re a hopeless, unsophisticated optimist who signs up to every passing fad.
On the other hand, nerdom does exactly the same thing right back. If you worry about “Internet addiction”, the breakdown of interpersonal skills, think that crowd sourcing threatens notions of professionalism or can’t see the point of gamification then you’re a luddite that “doesn’t get it”. You’re the kind of sentimentalist who would drag everyone back to the good old days of rationing and coal mining and slum tenements and feudalism.

Those are your choices. Guardian or Daily Mail, bullshitter or tedious reactionary, panglossian optimist or po-faced medievalist. Stephen Fry or Brian Sewell.

Being typecast in this way is annoying; it means that when I try to evince the benefits of some web thing or other anyone skeptical will simply assume that my judgement is hopelessly clouded.

Conversely anyone who raises a legitimate concern will disappear under an avalanche of comments.

Often this binary assumption about people’s psychology distracts from sensible conversation about which of the opportunities the web presents are most valuable to society. It’s from this angle that I consider the following question: does getting your intellectual nourishment from a computer screen reduce your capacity to have complex thoughts or reduce your mental acuity?

The most eloquent dismissal of this idea that I’ve heard is from an LSE podcast. Jonathan Douglas, director of The National Literacy Trust frames the debate in terms of a dynamic understanding of what it is to be literate. As examples, he points out that Socrates hated the idea of writing, and thought of it as “killing words”. For Socrates, the only way to be literate was to participate in discussion, not to read it secondhand.

In antiquity, it was most common for reading to be out loud, and the ability to clearly orate a text was a critical aspect of literacy. Now moving your lips as you read is a sign of stupidity.

To quote Jonathan Douglass “Technology is driving a massive change in reading, from personal to social and interactive”. He notes that the concept of authority and critical skills are now part of the core skills that you need to access ideas, so that to be literate in the most modern sense is to understand the provenance of Wikipedia articles and to treat the information appropriately.

None of this means that reading on the web is more or less able to convey complex ideas, or to be valued any more or less than books.

Books, however, have a particular fetishised status which many people can’t get over. For a long time they have been the primary means for getting access to ideas, and so they have come to be seen as the only (serious) means for accessing ideas. They no longer have this special status and we need to bear in mind that books are just containers – it’s their payload that really matters. The most important thing is for concepts to be imparted, not the means by which it is done.

Collecting books, which can absolutely see the appeal of, is really a kind of cargo cult. Having the first edition doesn’t change the knowledge contained within the book, it represents a kind of faith the physical object rather than the words within. This is the cult of books, and while understandable, it’s not a sound basis for ignoring other media.

I’ve seen representatives of the Campaign for Real Eduction in TV interviews criticising the idea that a school might buy laptops on the basis that they should really buy books. Susan Greenfield, an Oxford Neuroscientist, has suggested all kinds of problems that might be caused by a failure to spend enough time with books, always gathering attention from the popular press but never supporting her ideas with any evidence.

I think this notion of changing literacy is very helpful in explaining to skeptics the potential of the web to provide a whole new way to access intellectual thought. It couldn’t be more apposite that I discovered it by listening to a podcast from an event that I would otherwise never have found out about.

It’s not a sop to short attention spans, or “dumbing down”, to express information in format other than extended prose. One of my favorite examples is Hyperphysics, which shows the central concepts of physics in relation to each other. It’s not a linear text book, but I don’t think anyone can accuse it of dumbing physics down.

Most excitingly, there is an opportunity to throw open the doors to academia, with lectures and talks available as podcasts, professors keeping blogs and course notes appearing online – this is a genuine opportunity to let learning that was once confined to institutions out of it’s cage. It would be foolish to pass this up simply because of a dogmatic allegiance to binding our knowledge into volumes and lodging them at the British Library.

This Wednesday I went to a London Web event to hear venture capitalist and ex-Goldman Sachs employee John Frankel talk about “Using VC Funds To Change The World”. I took it to be implicit in the title that it referred to changing the world for the better. I think what it actually referred to was changing the world by making a lot of money for yourself, and, if you are lucky, John Frankel.

Two topics particularly caught my attention. Firstly the way the dialogue between audience and speaker dwelt on why Europe couldn’t produce Startups like “the Valley”, echo ing Eric Schmidts’ comments later in the week to the Edinburgh TV festival. My natural response is to feel that there are few circumstances where aiming to be more like the US is a useful policy.  Calling Old Street Silicone Roundabout is symbolic of a naff, and hopeless, attempt to ape America. Anyway, I think that observation sets the context for what I felt was the most salient point of the evening.

A lot of questions were asked about what qualities Mr Frankel looked for in a startup, questions he was clearly used to fielding. Taking the liberty of summarising him, he wanted to invest in a future monopoly like Google or Facebook. Though expressed in many different ways, the idea was that he would put his money in services that could hold society to ransom by using their scale to ensure that they have no competitors.

In too many places to list, I’ve heard the San Francisco originated cyberculture of the web is one of Doing No Evil and being generally lovely. You might think I’m naive to believe this stuff, but actually I kind of do. Whilst I’m not saying that I think Google and Facebook are run for the good of the world, Google.org exists, Bill Gates is the biggest philanthropist in history and Mark Zuckerberg has signed a pledge to give at least half his wealth away. I’d also point to the fact that Google, Yahoo and Facebook have been prepared to open source all kinds of things, in many instances where they stood little to gain. These firms seem distinct from the gray homogeneity of normal capitalism. Just look at how frivolous their names and logos are: Yahoo! insists on an exclamation mark while Google’s logo was designed by a friend of the founders and is, by any normal standard, terrible. Facebook is not a name that a marketing department would come up with.

I strongly got the impression that this is not the MO of the next wave of startups – they are funded by former Goldman Sachs wonks with a view to earning money by exploiting consumers using their monopoly powers. Startups will not be sparked from an exciting PhD paper or from a dorm in a university – they will be the spawn of business plans and spreadsheets and market research.

For reasons I don’t fully understand the web seems to make monopolies easier to build, which is incredibly bad news for everyone except their owners. And now I realise there is a whole world of funding for anyone who wants to seize that opportunity. Inevitable perhaps, but normally when I go to a talk about the web it will be about (perhaps overblown) claims that the Internet will make everyone’s lives better, especially poor people, especially in developing countries. This talk was exactly the opposite.

My last post used Wikipedia’s list of dates of births and deaths to build a timeline showing the lifespans of people who have pages on Wikipedia. There are a lot of people with Wikipedia pages, so I limited it to only include dead people.

That still leaves you with a lot of people to fit on one timeline, so I wanted to prioritise ‘important’ or ‘interesting’ people at the top and show only the most ‘important’ 1000. Some have been confused by my method for doing this, and others have questioned its validity, so this post will address both issues. I’m also going to suggest an improvement. It turns out that whatever I do Michael Jackson is more important than Jesus. I’m just the messenger.

Explaining the method
To get a measure of ‘importance’ I used work done by Stephan Dolan. He has developed a system for ranking Wikipedia pages which is very similar to the PageRank system which Google uses to prioritise its search results.

Wikipedia’s pages link to one another, and Stephan Dolan’s algorithm gives a measure of well linked to all the other Wikipedia pages a particular page is. If we want to know how well linked in the page about Charles Darwin is the algorithm examines every other page in Wikipedia and works out how many links you would have to follow to get from the page it is examining to the Charles Darwin page using the shortest route.

For example, to get from Aldous Huxley to Charles Darwin takes two links, one from Aldous to Thomas Henry Huxley (Aldous’s father) and then another to Darwin (TH Huxley famously defended evolution as a theory). Dolan’s method calculates the average number of clicks from every page in Wikipedia to the Charles Darwin page, and then takes an average value. To get to Charles Darwin takes an average 3.88 clicks from other Wikipedia pages.

Equivalently, Google shows pages that have many links pointing to them nearer the top in its search results.

This method works OK, but it could be better. For example Mircea Eliade ranks as the fifth most important dead person dead person on Wikipedia, taking on average 3.78 clicks to find him. But Mircea Eliade is a Romanian historian of religion – hardly a household name. We can take this as a positive statement, perhaps Mircea Eliade is a figure of hither to unrecognised importance and influence. On the other hand it seems impossible that he can be more ‘important’ than Darwin.

Testing the validity of the Dolan Index
I decided it would be interesting to compare what I’m going to call the Dolan index (the average number of clicks as described above) with two other metrics that could be construed as measuring the importance of a person. Before we do that, here is a Graph of what the Dolan index of dead people on Wikipedia looks like.

The bottom axis shows the rank order of pages, from Pope John Paul II, who is has the 275th highest Dolan index on Wikipedia, to Zi Pitcher, who comes 430900th in terms of Dolan index. It makes a very tidy log plot.

As I mentioned previously, the Dolan index is very similar to a Google PageRank, so lets compare them.

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The x axis is the same as the first graph, Wikipedia pages from highest to lowest Dolan index. A well linked page has a low Dolan index, but a High PageRank, so I used the reciprocal of PageRank for the y axis. I’ve also added a log best fit line.

Comparing with PageRank seems to indicate there is a reasonable correlation between Dolan index and PageRank, which is indicated by the fact the first and second graphs have a similar shape.

PageRank is only given in integer values between 1-10 (realistically, all Wikipedia pages have a PageRank between 3-7), so I’ve smoothed the curve using a moving average.

This seems to lend some weight to the Dolan Index as a measure.

I’ve also made a comparison between the Dolan index the number of results returned when searching for a person’s name (without quotes) in Google search. It should be noted that this number seems to be quite unstable – a search will give a slightly different number of results from one day to the next. I’ve used a log scale because of the range of results.

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There is barely any correlation here, except a very low values of Dolan index. Despite this, it’s still possible for the number of Google results to be useful, as becomes in apparent when trying to improve my measure of ‘importance’.

A suggestion for improvement
The problem with all the measures seems to be the noise inherent in the system. While Dolan Index, PageRank and number of Google results all provide a rough guide to ‘importance’ or ‘interest’ overall, each of them frequently gives unlikely results. How about using a mixture of all three? Here is a table comparing the top 25 dead people by Dolan index and using a hybrid measure of importance constructed from all three metrics.

Dolan index Hybrid measure
Pope John Paul II Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson Jesus
John F. Kennedy Ronald Reagan
Gerald Ford Jimi Hendrix
Mircea Eliade Abraham Lincoln
Peter Jennings Adolf Hitler
John Lennon Albert Einstein
Adolf Hitler William Shakespeare
Harry S. Truman Charles Darwin
Rold Reagan Oscar Wilde
J. R. R. Tolkien Woodrow Wilson
James Brown Isaac Newton
Anthony Burgess Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley Walt Disney
Christopher Reeve John Lennon
Susan Oliver George Washington
Franklin D. Roosevelt John F. Kennedy
Winston Churchill Timur
Ernest Hemingway Martin Luther
Theodore Roosevelt Voltaire

 

To get the hybrid measure I just messed around until things felt right. Here is the formula I came up with:

 

Hybrid measure = ((1/Dolan index)x 20) + (PageRank x0.6) + (log(number of results)x 0.6)

For some reason additive formulas give better results than multiplicative ones.

Using the hybrid measure seems to have removed the surprises (like Peter Jennings) although you might still argue that Oscar Wilde or Jimi Hendrix are much too high. Michael Jackson comes out as bigger than Jesus, but then he is an exceptionally famous person, and he died much more recently than Jesus. Timur (AKA Tamerlane) is a bit of a curiosity.

I considered ignoring Number of Google results because its such a noisy dataset, however it’s the only reason that Jesus appears at all in this list, he gets a very low ranking (4.01) from the Dolan Index. Any formula which brings Jesus out on top (which I think you could make a reasonable case for his deserving, at least over Michael Jackson!), gives all kinds of strage results elsewhere.

I am a bit suspicious of “number of google results” metric. In addition to volatility Number of results fails to take into account that occurrences of words such as “Newtonian” should probably count towards Newton’s ranking, but that people called David Mitchell will benefit artificially from the fact that at least two famous people share the name.

Any further investigation would have to consider what made a person ‘important’ – would it simply be how prominent they are in the minds of people (Michael Jackson and Jimi Hendrix) or would it reflect how influential they were (Charles Darwin for example, or the notably absent Karl Marx)?

I love the idea that the web reflects the collective conciousness, a kind of super-brain aggregation of human knowlege.

Just this week the idea of reflecting the whole of reality in one enormous computer systemwas promoted by Dirk Helbing, although my formula doesn’t rate him as very important, so I’m unsure as to how seriously to take this.

Ian Pearson is a professional future gazer for BT. I interveiewed him for the thing is…

Life expectancy has grown at a fairly regular rate for about 150 years now, do you think there is any chance of a significant deviation from this pattern in the next 50 years?

Nobody knows how much life expectancy can be expected to grow, some people think that the limit will be about 130 years, with quite a lot of people living to 100.

You’ve predicted a decline in manual jobs, which isn’t much of a surprise. You’ve also predicted that technology could reproduce the skills of footballers, TV presenters and experts who rely on experience to make judgments. If I want a job that isn’t going to be automated, where should I look?

The idea of a job for life is already history. People in the future will have multiple careers over a lifetime. The average time that people spend with one company decreases every year, and over the last 20 years most jobs have changed beyond recognition. The idea of picking one job for life is a thing of the past.

I think in the information economy jobs that require intelligence can largely be automated. Administrative jobs can quite easily be automated, and the industrial sector robotics will be able to replace people. What’s left are jobs that require human contact, emotional, caring roles, and these are the things that people will largely be doing in 20-30 years time. We’re not talking about people having their jobs wiped out, but they will be focused more on the people issue.

And you’ve said that you think creativity could go that way too?

I think so. Already computers are creative in any sense that you choose to define it. Computers can already produce art, write poetry and things like that. The quality isn’t very good, but when you think that a supercomputer isn’t as powerful as the human brain yet that isn’t entirely surprising. As we get better AI we will start to see computer enhanced creativity. I don’t see it as a threat to human creativity, it will allow us to indulge our creativity.

I compose music, but I’m not very good at it. If I had machine creativity at my disposal all I would have to do is give a few hints about what I wanted and it would help me to compose something that Mozart would have been proud of.

Do you think all this means we can expect to enjoy more leisure time?

People in the past have predicted that we will have much more leisure time because machines would automate a lot of the work. That has happened, but instead of taking more leisure time we’ve decide to go for a much, much higher standard of living. Because I can get a job working 55 hours a week I work 55 hours a week and have a high standard of living compared to my parents or grandparents. If I was prepared to accept the same standard of living as my grandfather then I could work 10 hours a week, but do I really want to live in a very basic house with a 14” TV?

On the other had we do see a phenomena of downshifting at the moment. People opting out of the rat race and the materialistic life style and deciding to concentrate on their quality of life. Its impossible to predict how common this will become.

We often hear about the knowledge economy, and certainly it is the case that many more people have degrees in the UK than used to. Do you think it would be prudent to think a bit more about a masters or PhD to compete with future generations?

I think being highly qualified will be useful for the next 10-15 years at most. For the early part of your career it’s probably a good idea to have good qualifications to set yourself apart from everybody else. But in the long term the qualification stands for diddly-squat because if we believe that we are moving towards an economy where all the intelligent work will be done by machines then a PhD is of no commercial value whatever.

What counts are things like emotional and interpersonal skills, having a nice personality and being good at meeting people. For my 13 year old daughter’s generation I think qualifications will be irrelevant.

When I speak to education conferences I say that most of the useful stuff that kids are learning in school is on the playground not in the classroom. Learning to motivate and empathize is not on the curriculum in most schools. The popular guy who sits at the back of the class and messes about is actually likely to be in a much better position in 30 years time than you are working really hard.

Do you detect and increase in the rate of change of technology?

Change is accelerating, there’s no doubt about that. When I first started this job in the early 1990s I could keep up with technological change relatively easily. Now I can’t: it’s a positive feedback system where every new wave of technology helps to make the next wave even faster. For example bio-technologists might discover a new protein which can be used for organic computing, and the faster computers that result from that could in turn be used to better understand proteins. This leads to a phenomena known as a singularity, where the rate of change as shown on the graph would be essentially vertical. This will be probably happen around 2025, and the pace of change will be similar to ET landing and giving us all the technology from his space ship.

Obviously we perceive technology’s march, but is there a way of putting a number on the rate of change in technology?

There probably is, although I’ve never tried it. If you look at the number of patents filed each year there’s likely to be an exponential rise. There’s also an exponential rise in the quantity of information in the world. 30 years ago the amount of information in the world doubled every 10 years, now it doubles every year. Its quite exciting to think that every year half of the information in the world is new – almost everything we know we’ve only just discovered.

The might of countries like China and India is increasing at the moment. Do you think these countries will come to dominate the west, and if so will we notice a big difference in our everyday lives? Historically these things have been cyclical. If you look to the distant past China has been responsible for a lot of technology, and India has also been through a phase of being very powerful. Europe has gone past its peak and America has enjoyed the international lead for quite a long time, although it’s slipping fast, with China and India catching up, with China very much further ahead than India.

 

It’s no big surprise — China has a quarter of the worlds population, so on a level playing field you would expect it to dominate. Meanwhile Europe has an aging population and a lot of our young people are not very well educated. In 30 years’ time Europe will be an also-ran on the world stage.

True so. One last question — why is the future always depicted as a dystopia?

People aren’t interested in the nice side of things, they are only interested in things they have to worry about. In evolutionary terms people have always had to be on the look out for predators, in the same way people naturally look for threats when discussing the future, rather than seeing the opportunities. I don’t lose any sleep over the future – at the end of the day I believe that we’ll muddle through because we always do.