The Future is Already Here

  • The Brain's Last Stand

    I like chess. In fact, I play bad chess rather well; an interest that stared in school with a compulsive interest in the epic match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky in Reykjavík, 1972.

    Roll-on almost thirty years and I was fortunate to have a mutual friend of the Grandmaster, Gary Kasparov and one evening, we all met together at a London restaurant, not long after Gary had been beaten in a future-defining match with IBM’s “Deep Blue” chess computer in New York.

    It’s a story I tell because this was a single important moment in a road towards artificial intelligence (AI) which takes us to the present, 2016, a year when a computer beat another Grandmaster, this time of the ancient game of GO; Lee Sedol and the vision behind it was Demis Hassibis a former chess prodigy, who started Deep Mind, a London company, recently bought by Google for £300m.

    The novelist, Ray Bradbury was once asked “Are you trying to predict the future?” Hell No he replied. “I’m trying to prevent it.” We invariably wrap ourselves in knots when we discuss the future in any industry and whether this involves disruptive changes to business in the new platform, “sharing” economy or simple economic Darwnism.

    Kevin Kelly, the founder of Wired magazine, said the business plans of the next 10,000 start-ups are easy to predict: “Take X and add AI.” Artificial Intelligence is being driven by huge strides in machine learning; the ability to harness and analyse unprecedented volumes of data and the introduction of what is now described as the algorithm economy.

    The most powerful A.I. systems, like IBM’s Watson, use techniques like deep learning as just one element in a very complicated ensemble of techniques. The most striking thing about DeepMind’s system is that it solves problems and masters skills without being specifically programmed to do so. It shows true general learning ability.

    In a little under twelve months since winning a game of Go, which wasn’t predicted to happen for at least another ten years, Deep Mind has introduced curiosity to its AI and now given it a short-term memory. These are huge strides in progress inside a relatively tiny window of time. This progress, driven by Google; whose Larry Page said in May 2002: “Google will fulfil its mission only when its search engine is AI-complete.”

    Indeed, Facebook, IBM, Microsoft and others are going to introduce changes into our lives within the space of a single decade, that many of struggle to imagine. “The fact that evolution produced intelligence therefore indicates that human engineering will soon be able to do the same.” Thus, the robotics scientist, Hans Moravec wrote back in 1976.

    AI has crossed a threshold and gone mainstream for the simple reason that it works. It is powering services which make a huge difference in people’s lives, and which now enable companies like Google or Facebook to deliver profits that would have been inconceivable fifteen years ago.

    But AI is a broad field. It’s about to make its impact felt within the information security industry alongside predictive analytics and it would be hard to find a single large business; even conservative law-firms, that aren’t wondering how the introduction of artificial intelligence, “Cognification,” will disrupt them.

    So starting with Gary Kasparov and Deep Blue and taking us to the present with Deep Mind and Go, AI is a single important strand in my presentations on the future and where I think all of this may be taking-us; rather more quickly than we might have anticipated.

    And of course there’s Chess and it’s worth noting that rather a lot of the world’s most innovative businessmen are quite attached to the game. Maybe there’s something in it after all?



  • Why drones are a terrorist threat.

    Republished from The What and the Why

    As a part-time commercial pilot I’m one of a few who have encountered a drone while making an approach to land; forcing a go-around and reporting my close encounter to air traffic control.

    From a technology perspective, drone development has only just passed its Wright Brothers moment and the world, as reflected

    in this month’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas (CES) is scrambling to discover new opportunities and markets in much the same manner as the early days of aviation. At the same time, western governments worry that criminals and terrorists may also find new ways of cleverly exploiting the new technology.

    We’ve heard this month, that the Oxford Research Group, in a report, titled ‘The hostile use of drones by non-state actors against British targets’, wants the UK government to both fund the development of military-style lasers to shoot drones down and the creation of jamming and early-warning systems to be used by police. After reviewing over 200 commercial drones, it concluded the technology only poses a threat if a terrorist group builds a completely new drone from scratch. This is I believe, a dangerously naive and complacent view of a new danger and I’ll explain why.

    A flurry of new models and giant strides in lithium battery technology, has taken the equivalent of a first Wright Brothers of 1903 moment for the drone industry and fast-forwarded the technology to the equivalent of 1914 and the outbreak of WW1. For the Wright Brothers, building a light-enough engine to allow their aircraft to achieve powered flight was their greatest challenge. The commercial drone industry has solved this problem in months rather than years and an average flight time of 20 minutes in 2015 will likely stretch to 40 minutes with smaller and more powerful batteries by the end of this year.

    From a security perspective, what does this acceleration in the technology mean and what are the risk implications if any?

    We can of course expect, larger, faster and more powerful commercial drones with much longer battery lives, greater intelligence and greater range. Already, on my own DJI Phantom 3 Professional, the intelligent software that controls it, is being updated every six weeks or so; adding more powerful and automated control and navigation features that can be easily controlled from my Apple iPad or iPhone.

    While top-of-the range drones, could in principle, be used to carry small improvised and precisely GPS targeted explosive devices (IED) very easily indeed, it’s more likely that terrorists and criminals might use them for other purposes and the security services are having to use lateral thinking to keep up with the ideas some of the terrorists might arrive at.

    For example, putting a major airport out of action might be achieved easily. I won’t go into detail but all that’s required is one large drone ($2,000) and some easily bought mail order related equipment. All traffic could be halted without even causing an explosion.

    To prevent this type of scenario drone manufactures have started building ‘GPS fencing’ into their aircraft software to prevent a drone taking-off anywhere near an airport. But this kind of measure can be ‘spoofed’ by GPS jammers.aaaaaaaaaaaaaaa

    These jammers are becoming more powerful and are widely available online. The cybercrime book, ‘Future Crimes’, refers to an example in mid-2013 when an $80 million yacht was hijacked by spoofing GPS signals. In another example, here in the UK., an organized crime group successfully used GPS jammers to steal more than forty large tractor trailers containing cargo worth in excess of $10 million.

    A large commercial drone could easily carry a GPS jammer and land on a vessel entering a port. The equipment could then be used to possibly interfere with a ship’s navigation computer.

    Modern passenger aircraft, also rely on GPS as well as their own inertial navigation systems for pin-point accuracy in landing huge aircraft like the A380. The Guardian’s Charles Arthur, reported that Russian-built GPS jammers deployed by North Korea, are reportedly able to affect systems as far as 100km and in 2012, they were used to scramble GPS signals near two of South Korea’s major airports. The United States FAA advised U.S. airlines to exercise caution when near Seoul, ‘due to possible interference with or disruption of GPS navigation systems.’

    But a large impact doesn’t always require a large payload or a powerful explosive. As a young man, at the height of the Cold War I researched the deadly chemical agents, Tabun, Sarin and Soman. It’s these G-Series nerve agents which offered Tony Blair a pretext for the invasion of Iraq and which our security services fear may now be under the control of the Daesh, Islamic State.

    Any number of existing drones could carry enough nerve agent to cause mass casualties. It doesn’t take much. In the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin attack; 1.3 liters of Sarin was used. It killed 12 people, severely injuring 50 and causing temporary vision problems for nearly 1,000 others. Although this was originally planned as an aerosol attack, it wasn’t possible with the tools available to the terrorists at the time. As a consequence, countless lives were saved.

    Finally, drones can be used by both terrorists and criminals for situational awareness. Coming soon are drones carrying infra-red cameras to help law-enforcement, rescue services and others who might wish to see in the dark. The Mumbai attacks of 2008, which lasted over four days, demonstrated how terrorists could use mobile and social media technologies to coordinate their attacks. A drone hovering high above an incident could offer valuable situational awareness during a siege or hostage situation.

    With such examples in mind, dismissing drones as a ‘menace that doesn’t exist’ may be premature.

    Science fiction writers such as William Gibson, the novelist who gave us the expression, ‘Cyberspace.’ have already anticipated the direction drones are likely to take. The Los Zetas drug cartel in Mexico is reportedly becoming more imaginative with each incremental improvement in the technology. Drones are going to change the commercial landscape as dramatically as aircraft once did in the 1930s but in an increasingly dangerous and uncertain world, governments have no clear answers to the very real risks they will bring with them too.

  • Future Proofing our Cities in an Age of Migration

    In 1900, it’s estimated 200 million people lived in cities, at the time, about one-eighth of the world’s population. A little over one hundred years later, over 3 billion people now occupy urban space and in 2015, London surpassed its 1939 peak of 8.5 million residents, placing unprecedented demands on both infrastructure and public services.

    The security researcher Robert Muggah describes the phenomenon of ‘turbo-urbanization’, and this is one of the key drivers of risk in developing economies today. For example, China is adding a mega city the size of London every two years and India needs to build the equivalent of a new Manchester every year to keep up with inexhaustible demand for urban housing.

    It was as true of the era of Thomas Edison as it is of the present, that the search for an answer to the challenges of growing urbanisation is believed to exist through the smarter application of new technologies. Where once, electricity and the arrival of the elevator gave us vertical cities, today, we have the promise of the Internet of Things (IoT) Artificial Intelligence (AI) Big Data, micro-controllers (MEMS) and new materials to help manage a very crowded future.

    Perhaps we should simply admit that nobody has a clue what the world will look like in even five years’ time. Before we start prematurely celebrating the arrival ‘Smart Cities,’ we urgently need to solve the problems of ‘Sick Cities‘ and ‘Safe Cities’. More importantly, we might ask if we are so focused on an urban utopia, that we have lost touch with some of the very real technical, infrastructure and social problems that define the fastest growing urban environments. I noted on a recent BBC news a report that some Chinese cities have been erected without adequate drainage and sewer systems to deal with regular monsoon-driven flooding.

    We are living in what has been described as ‘An Era of Possibilities,’ a special window in both time and technology is now driving the scaling of commercial and social activity beyond the familiar boundaries we are used to.

    We are on the cusp of a technology-based societal transformation that will be at least as big as that of the Industrial Revolution.

    In a conference presentation this summer in London (IFSEC Global) I was asked which ‘Smart Technologies’ will have the biggest impact on cities in the future and what emerging trends are keeping people and property safe? Can we can evolve the emerging concept of a smart city organically; one app, one Uber, one check-in, one API call, one Arduino, one hot spot at a time?

    In hundreds of cities across the world, we see the arrival of a new civic consciousness as the smartphone becomes a platform for reinventing the urban landscape from the bottom up. We are moving from dull, monolithic and centralised, City Hall-controlled data into richer and more useful crowdsourced data from millions of smartphones. Cities are already the most complex structures mankind has ever created and for a new generation of civic leaders, in larger and developed ‘super-cities’ like New York, London and Singapore, smart technology represents an opportunity to rethink and even reinvent the tired-looking model of local government.

    The potential for cities to improve performance and personal security using data and crowd-sourced analytics is dramatic and potentially unlimited. Technology appears to hold many answers but simultaneously presents us with bigger problems too. Why?

    Well, for one reason, in the past, urban risk was widely distributed among structures rather than devices, but today technology companies and even politicians imagine anything capable of holding an electric current, from the city’s water supply valves, to your bathroom light-bulb connected to the Internet; confronted by a perfect storm of risk factors and potential vulnerabilities. There is the potential for the recent Ashley Madison hack to look like child’s play as each of these connection points is potentially a source for a security breach.

    If I were to summarise the message of my presentation at IFSEC Global this last summer, it would be this – Much like the arrival of Uber and Airbnb, The Internet of Things will deliver exciting opportunities, many of which we have yet to imagine. However, there will be equally unimagined and unintended consequences, if only because, in highly complex systems with many connected and tightly-linked elements, accidents are inevitable.

    The vision of a utopian urban future, rests heavily on the success of Open Data and a fast-evolving Cloud Computing paradigm. However, unless government and industry can collectively find a standardised model to secure a trillion or so smart devices, the surface area risk for tomorrow’s Smart Cities appears daunting. A wider communications break-down in the Cloud could lead to the kind of ‘Downtime’ paralysis described by the SF novelist, Cory Doctorow, in his short story, ‘Human Readable.’

    That’s not to say I’m a pessimist. On a recent visit to give a talk in Hong Kong, my taxi from the airport had five smartphones fixed to a specially constructed Perspex dashboard positioned in front of the driver. At any one time he appeared to be using at least three.

    Having grown-up with an earlier vision of the future by the Ridley Scott movie, ‘Blade Runner’ the oriental combination of a very old Toyota taxi and a small gallery of smartphones, pointed me in the direction of another urban landscape. Governments and big technology companies may have grand visions for the future of smart cities, but ultimately, the coming age of global urbanisation will be crowd-shaped by citizen interest groups, market forces, Open Data, smartphones and an even army of fast-talking, multi-tasking Chinese taxi drivers?

    Simon Moores (@SimonMoores) is a strategic technologies and risk consultant. A Vice President of the Conservative Technology Forum and a former ‘Technology Ambassador’ for the British Government.

  • An 1812 Moment in the Making

    Black leather jackets and jeans. A noisy army of young men on the streets of Istanbul, hawking and hustling on street corners, outside cafes and in between the traffic. It might have been Tunis or Beirut but the impression it left on me was very much the same.

    I was in Istanbul to speak at A Harvard Business Review conference on the future and The Internet of Things; a hot topic these days, attracting billions of dollars of investment from big industry names like IBM, Google, Intel and GE.

    After the talk, I remarked to the FT’s Jonathan Margolis, that I felt the older industrial economies of the west were sleep-walking into ‘An 1812 Moment’ of potential socio-industrial turmoil and he suggested I share the argument.

    In Britain, at the beginning of the 19th century, there was a dramatic movement of the population; focusing the new industrial workforce from the land, into the new cities as the means of production for the cotton industry, was rapidly centralised in the new factories; ‘The Dark Satanic Mills’ described by the poet William Blake, with consequences that could still be felt in the Britain of the 1930s and described by George Orwell in ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’.

    1812 was a pivotal moment marking a contemporary, anti-technology revolt, the Luddite movement, when workers, upset with a reduction in wages and the use of un-apprenticed workmen, attacked factories and machines.

    But the move towards the first and second industrial revolutions which gave us Karl Marx, Thomas Edison, Keynes, Henry Ford, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates was unstoppable and delivered the great but fading industrial economies of today.

    However, what few economists and fewer politicians appear to have noticed, is that 2008 not only delivered a global recession but marked the end of the second industrial revolution and the start of the third. Cloud computing has placed practically infinite computing power and storage and a host of sophisticated tools and applications at everyone’s disposal, on a pay as you go basis for those lucky enough to live in the developed world and new characters such as Sergey Brin, Jeff Bezos, Thomas Piketty and Mark Zuckerberg have appeared with new ideas.

    Equally, new ways of doing business arrived in quick succession, like Uber, AirBnB and Etsy, which are predicated on a distributed App-economy eliminating the need for business centralisation and the 200 year-old traditional model of the value chain.

    And at the beginning of this decade a series of technologies started to emerge and converge, in such a rapid and disruptive fashion, that the inward-looking and centralised flow of the workforce in cities like London and Istanbul, may soon be thrown into reverse gear, as the employment proposition evolves in a radical direction and even disappears for large parts of the population.

    Economies around Europe and surrounding the Mediterranean that are authoritarian, centralised or hierarchical in their business models face swift disruption and disintermediation and we’ve witnessed the first social convulsions with both the Arab Spring and politically desperate attempts to control and censor social media channels, such as Twitter and Facebook.

    When’ Lights-out’ factories and distribution centres can be cost-effectively automated, cheap 3D printers connected to the Internet and the Cloud can make new ‘cottage’ industries both practical and profitable, where do all the thousands of unskilled and barely educated young men and young women too, go to find work in the urban sprawl of five years’ time?

    In the larger northern European and EU economies the debate surrounds the delivery of skills and education to stimulate new service and technical jobs around entirely new industries, in much the same way that the arrival of the motor-car in the early 1900s and the Internet in the 1990’s created a thriving surrounding infrastructure.

    However, the problem remains much the same, whether you are exploring it from London, Athens or Istanbul. Most of the business productivity gains of the last twenty years have been achieved by replacing people with technology and post-2008, some leading economists, noted to their alarm, that this process accelerated on both sides of the Atlantic.

    In poorer economies with a young, broadly unskilled and rapidly growing population, this should be a cause for alarm and only this week, Sky News reported 10,000, mostly young men and economic migrants, successfully crossing the Mediterranean from Africa to Italy.

    China, which is adding a mega city the size of London every two years, has witnessed a dramatic migration to its new cities, has already seen business lay-off some eleven million factory workers, as machines can make most products now, faster, cheaper, more reliably and with greater profitability than human workers. By 2030, eighteen cities will have more than twenty million inhabitants and London will be among them

    With over 90% of that urban growth will occur in developing countries, the statistics beg the question of how these large societies will be able to cope when their 2nd industrial revolution methods of production, management and employment are swept aside and disintermediated, in much the same manner as Amazon is devastating the retail business and Uber is disrupting the conventional taxi business globally.

    Asked how he went bankrupt, the novelist Ernest Hemingway, thought for a moment and then replied, ‘Slowly and then suddenly.

    As a technologist and a ‘Strategic Futurist’ I find myself gazing at a very large and complex jigsaw puzzle which is not quite complete; just missing a handful of small pieces and which from a technical perspective surround industry standards, access and security.

    Once that final, complex jigsaw piece of technology convergence is put in place, an uncomfortable period of disruption is likely to happen quite rapidly in societies, that much like the quote from Ernest Hemingway, are broadly unprepared for the impact of sudden political, technological and economic change. I’m reminded of a warning I wrote in the opening paragraph of a story for The Observer Newspaper fifteen years ago as we approached the moment between the second and third industrial revolutions:

    ‘Welcome to the aftermath of the old economy. In the race between Europe's new 'just-in-time, 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week' super-states, we are in danger of losing our ability to manage the expectations of an increasingly wired society. Technology can help fulfil our ambitions, but it doesn't do much for people who can't afford ambition.’

    How, I added: ‘Facing the prospect of a lost generation, how do governments plan to re-engineer the workforce to meet the demands of a global networked economy?’

    Fifteen years further on the solution for many politicians still remains to ignore the lessons of history and hope for the best.?

    First published on: Tim Marshall's The What and the Why weblog. April 2015



  • Plus Ca Change

    When I started writing this weblog, ten years ago, not that many people at home, compared with the present, had the Internet and Amazon sold books and little else. Today, super-high-speed broadband has just become available in Westgate; that's if you are prepared to pay £30 a month extra for the experience with BT.

    Ten years on and it seems that everyone is shopping online and mostly at Amazon or eBay, iPads and tablet PCs are the gift of choice this year - how did we live without them - and we are just emerging from the biggest financial crisis since the 1930s.

    So what will the world look like in another ten years? You can be sure there's something making a big impact that none of us have thought about yet but in general terms the future, at least where the advances in technology are involved has become relatively predictable

    With the good news from Government, we are hearing about jobs and growth; all those things we need to raise the standard of living and be competitive in a changing world. However, in China, workers wages are also rising and FoxConn Technology, which employs over over one million Chinese, assembling most of those high-tech goodies that will sit under your own Christmas tree, is on an ambitious programme to replace one million of its 1.2 million workers with robots over the coming decade. Labour costs, even in China, are now eating into the profits which once made its cheap labour so attractive. Google,n a major disruptive force in the world, also wants to put together the standard platform for a personal robotics revolution and is investing millions.

    As one example, a robotic hamburger kitchen already exists that can produce 360 gourmet hamburgers in one hour. McDonalds has enough profit to fund the development of automated machines that could provide a one year return on investment. Each McDonalds might need more one machine. Each machine takes up 24 square feet and replaces the people who cook and the kitchen.

    You see, the technology to automate humans out of many jobs is now advancing so fast, that in the space of ten years, the world or work will start to look very different and for many, without professional skills, finding work may become much harder than ever.

    All this is because as humans we are not good at recognising exponential rather than linear growth. We try and look at the future as a straight-line evolution of the past and today, with around eight technologies colliding, like genomics and robotics, we can't see clearly what's in front of us; the evidence appearing of the biggest changes since the start of the industrial revolution.

    Let me take an example from a lecture I gave for KPMG's bigger clients last month.

    Imagine that you are sitting in the top row seats of the FA Cup final at Wembley and the stadium has been made watertight. Far below, you see the captain of one of the teams and standing next to him is the referee, holding an eye dropper. He squeezes a single drop of water into the players palm and then one minute later two drops, a minute after that four drops and then eight as the infinite eye-dropper carries on dripping water into the player's outstretched hand.

    When does the pitch become covered with water?

    Some soccer loving mathematician has worked out that this happens in 43 minutes and you remark: "So what?"

    But when does the stadium become filled with water and everybody has to learn to sink or swim? The answer to that is 49 minutes and is an example of exponential growth. Suddenly something that at first looks linear, suddenly leaps up dramatically and everything changes very quickly

    From a technology perspective, we are now at roughly at the equivalent of 43 minutes since Moore's Law of 1965 which has processor power doubling every 18 months. The pitch is filled with water and subsequent changes to the landscape of work, the economy and with it, society, are going to start happening very quickly indeed over the coming five years, as all of a sudden, ground-breaking technologies swiftly move from the drawing board into the workplace and the living room.

    In another ten years, with luck, I will still be writing this blog, if such things exist and drawing my pension in Bitcoins too; if it still exists - my pension that is - but I promise you a bumpy ride, as all of a sudden, everyone realises that in the most part, distracted by gadgetry, we have been sleep-walking into a future that may look very different to the comfortable assumptions we hold today.


'It's just not very evenly distributed.'

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