Tuesday, 18 October 2016

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 Reykjav√≠k, 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?

Saturday, 16 July 2016

A Short Guide to Collecting your Iranian Travel Visa in London

After two visits to the Iranian consulate in London's Kensington, I was asked if I might share my experience, so that others might be more prepared than me.

So here's a quick 'cheat-sheet' for fellow tourists and business travelers. I was behind Sky's foreign correspondent and like me, he was equally baffled.

 Firstly it's highly disorganised from a European perspective, so be prepared for a very hot and long wait. It's a small room for the numbers of people involved on any one day and very overcrowded and over-heated; temperature and emotions both.

1) Arrive at least 30 minutes before the 2 pm start (Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays) to join the long queue in the street where they will give you a ticket number.

Do make sure, unlike me, that the day you choose is not a national Iranian holiday, one that you may not know about and indeed may not be published or you will be disappointed to find the visa section closed. Don't expect anyone official to help you; the counter-staff, I observed have remarkably short fuses.  You'll find no shortage of helpful fellow-travelers; some of whom may have been there before, who can guide you in the the right direction and given the waiting-time, may become friends for life!

2) When you arrive in the waiting room and are lucky enough to find a seat, listen closely for that number being called, as the electronic board supposed to display who is next, is either broken or simply not used.

There's a neat trick, I discovered that may catch-out the unwary. My ticket number was 726 but they were only calling-out the last two numbers that afternoon; i.e. 26. Also; they had started by handing-out tickets starting with 900, which ran-out and then switched to 700 out of sequence. By not actually telling anyone this was the case, an extra element of confusion was added to the exercise.

 3) Go to window #3 (if that's the starting-point counter in use that afternoon) and hand over your completed visa application, letter of invitation, two photos and your passport. The visa agent will check these and counter-sign sign your application.

 4) Now join the queue for the cashier at window #1 to pay £170 in cash (it may change without notice as it's linked to the $US) and hand over your passport and completed paperwork. He will give you a pink form receipt and a date to return and collect your passport.

5) If like me you can't come back to London on that given date and join the queue all over again, you can ask them to post your passport back to you via post-office special delivery. If that's the case, then now...

6) Join the queue for the another cashier counter outside the room for 'Other consular matters' (You can't miss it as this is where everyone with a problem goes and it's very animated)

7) Ask the person behind the window for a special delivery envelope for your passport. Give her £8.

 8) Complete your address on the front of the envelope and rejoin the queue back to the passport cashier at window #1

 9) Give him the envelope and make quite sure he puts it with your passport and not someone else's. I speak from experience, when working for the Foreign Office, of having had another person's visa glued in my passport in the past when seeking a Saudi visa; a very similar experience and process.

 10) Offer a short prayer they don't lose your passport and that they will promptly post it back to you the following week, ' As advertised'.

Final advice. Take a good book a black biro, PokemonGo perhaps, a sense of humor and patience. A bottle of water may be a good idea and an umbrella if you are caught queuing in the street in the rain as there is nowhere to shelter.

You might want to take a toilet-stop before you arrive as the wait may be a long one.

Don't be surprised if tour groups and agents with handfuls of passports magically appear in front of you. If you have enough money the process can be eased and I listened to one young passport agent who was simply, representing his client with all the paperwork and was too busy to be there. Smile and be patient. It all works out in the end.

 Good luck!

Postscript: I'm pleased to say that my passport arrived by special delivery a week later.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Why Drones Pose a Terrorist Threat.

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 reflectedin 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.

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.

First published at: www.thewhatandthewhy.com/drones-a-terrorist-threat/

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

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 1900's 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 fulfill 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

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Plus Ca Change

The Black Watch of 1974
When I started writing this weblog, ten years ago, not that many people in Thanet, 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, a major disruptive force in the world, also wants to put together the definitive standard platform for a personal robotics revolution and is investing millions.

The Pebble Watch of 2013
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 the kitchen too.

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.

Sony's Smart Wig - It's No Joke
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.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Light the Blue Touchpaper

Like a modern version of the gunpowder plot, perhaps one day we will look back and trace Britain's exit from the European Union to a speech given one evening by the Conservative MEP, Daniel Hannan in Thanet; setting light to a political fuse that may lead to an explosion in Brussels later this month.

Hannan is a remarkable figure and an inspiring orator of the kind that no longer exists in modern politics. The last time I came across an intellect as powerful, it was Gary Kasparov and like the former world chess champion, Hannan has an astonishing memory for detail, facts, figures and quotes.

His thesis, is that the European Union was created for the purpose of trade but instead it delivers suffocating regulation into every tiny corner of our lives.

He argues, that from Britain's point of view there is no national benefit to being a member, rather than being a free trade partner like Norway or Switzerland, simply because our balance of trade has moved away from Europe; they need us a great deal more than we need them, as our economy increasingly looks to the United States the Far-east and young nations like Brazil.

What we pay into Europe's tax and regulation coffers each year he claims, would very quickly bring down our own deficit and membership of the EU is strangling our own ability to recover, given that alone of all the members, as we remain outside the faltering common currency we are incrementally rebuilding our battered economy with new jobs and less debt.

Without any shadow of a doubt, Hannan delivered the most stirring and indeed logical, political speech I've every had the privilege of hearing and it's a shame it could not have been played to a national audience, rather than a small room, here in Thanet. However, I firmly believe its message is heard very clearly in the corridors of power, both in Brussels and Westminster and may well prove the prelude to a referendum decision from David Cameron before the month ends.

Sunday, 30 December 2012

All About Inflation

My daughter asked me recently why Governments can't just print more money to escape a recession. It's an astute question, because of course they do but call it 'quantitative easing' which brings the risk of inflation with it like a plague-infected flea on the back of a rat.

If you ask anyone in the street and many politicians, it's quite likely that they won't recall how we arrived at the mess we are now in, in the first place and it's all to do with Gold.

Until 1971, the quantity of dollars the US Government placed into circulation was linked to the amount of Gold held in the treasury at Fort Knox; remember James Bond and Mr Goldfinger? Most western governments worked the same way and this was called the 'Bretton Woods' standard and quite simply prevented governments, like our own, from printing currency when they wanted to.

However, in the irresistible race to make government larger, raise money for huge projects and to employ millions of hitherto unemployed people in the public sector, two things happened which led us to the dilemma we face today.

Firstly, government did what it had always done when it couldn't raise money to meet costs through direct taxation, it issued bonds. However, this rapidly became the equivalent of you or I paying for Xmas on our credit cards as old debts were recycled into new ones; almost identical to moving the balance from one big debt, to a new credit card with an introductory and attractive lower rate but over a greater period of time, so you pay more interest in the longer term.

But who pays you might ask and this is when it becomes very clever and explains why the banks are a vital part of our twisted economic ecosystem. The Government issues, let's say £1billion of bonds at 5% interest and sells these to the big banks; exchanging the paper IOU's for hard money the government can spend. The paper is quite worthless unless of course, the Bank of England or any other central bank, then prints the money, which it gives to the private banks in return for the IOU's with interest and this is what happens. If you tried this in the real world you might get arrested for fraud.

So far, so good you might think but the collapse of the Gold Standard removed any restraint on government printing as much money as it wished, with the spectre of the Weimar Republic in Germany in the 1930s, hovering in the background. This is where you and I pay for this conjuring trick, without realising it, because that's how we get inflation. Western government agree on their inflation targets each year to synchronise their currencies to prevent them becoming worthless over time; think of the Zimbabwe pound as an example of a currency outside the system.

Since 1971, the Pound has lost 90% of its value, in contrast with the Swiss Franc, which is still locked to the Gold their government holds in their Zurich vaults. This means that someone has to pay to pay for the interest each year, which is fundamentally what we call inflation, through a deliberate policy of allowing prices to rise to balance the decline in the value of the currency. And if everyone is in it together, the prospects of any one nation dropping-out of this poker game is rather too frightening to consider when countries like Greece and Spain can no longer pay the interest payments.

Lastly of course, the arrival of New Labour and in particular Prime Ministers Blair and Brown, intoduced an even cleverer conjuring trick to fund the runaway expansion of government. This was called 'PFI.' the public finance initiative. It is no different to a really impressive credit card but one with extended payment terms and which isn't controlled by the banks but by private business instead. So if you want to build new schools and hospitals, you do a twenty-five year deal with a big company at eye-watering levels of interest; think of Wonga.com.

You get get all the big projects which Government dreams about on credit, which convinces the voters that the government and in this case Labour, with its creative borrowing tricks going back to Harold Wilson, is wonderful with our taxes and great with its finances, mortgaged against future generations but our grandchildren are saddled with the debts. These hidden' off books' liabilities are estimated at being worth over 20% of or GDP or £11,330 of debt per household, in addition to the existing £32,000 of 'official debt' left to each home by the last government.

The political argument is a relatively simple one. Conservatives are naturally resistant to borrowing against an uncertain future and the taxes of future generations but this represents a central pillar of Labour's game. This works when economies grow in a predictable fashion and income tax revenues remain sensibly proportionate to expenditure but this hasn't happened for over twenty years now as western economies stagnate and there is little guarantee that future generations will have the economic strength to repay the interest on these huge loans, let alone the capital. This explains why the present government is trying so hard to bring the debt down so fast in such painful austerity measures.

"It had become usual to give Napoleon the credit for every successful achievement and every stroke of good fortune. You would often hear one hen remark to another, 'Under the guidance of our Leader, Comrade Napoleon, I have laid five eggs in six days'; or two cows, enjoying a drink at the pool, would exclaim, 'Thanks to the leadership of Comrade Napoleon, how excellent this water tastes!'

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Disruptive or Not

Occasionally, I'm asked how I define a 'Disruptive Technology' and the answer isn't always as straight forward as one might think.

Simon Moores - Disruptive Technologies - Ritz Hotel London 2012
It's easy to say, that it's the introduction of a new technology that changes the way we do business or represents a sudden evolutionary leap forward in a social, technical or informational sense.

In the past, it was easy to point at the steam engine the electric light, the telegraph, television or the Internet and describe them as 'disruptive' without any shadow of a doubt. Today it's a little more complex for several reasons.

Take 'Twitter' for example. Is it disruptive? After all, if you look at its impact on the Arab Spring and the libel laws in the UK, it's certainly having a disruptive effect.

What about Apple's iPod, iPhone or iPad? All of these individually and in concert represent an evolutionary step forward in the computing and software industry, not least of all the iPad, which in the space of two short years is becoming rapidly ubiquitous.

Our rapidly growing universe of “Things” is being linked through wired and wireless networks to the Internet. GSMA estimates connecting 24 billion devices by 2020, while Cisco and Ericsson think we will hit 50 billion. Altogether, these networks are churning out huge volumes of data that flow to computers for analysis. When objects can both sense the environment and communicate, they become tools for understanding complexity and responding to it swiftly. And then there's the convergence between, GPS, social media and fast developments in camera technology as well as rapid advanced in nano-engineering and DNA sequencing.

This is a subject I'm thinking more deeply upon for one of my presentations at the Ritz Hotel in December but what immediately strikes me is the sudden arrival of inflection points.

In the last century the pace of advance was more dramatic but much slower and has been accelerating rapidly, almost geometrically, since the 1980's. As the digital world expands and interfaces with every aspect of life that surrounds us, it's both raw speed and code that make makes a big difference as computer's follow the inexorable path of Moore's law.

So what happens today is that we see incremental and then very sudden, swift leaps forward, as technologies converge and arrive at an inflection point. The door suddenly opens to a raft of new opportunities and applications that might never have been imagined twelve months previously. All of a sudden, a large swathe of humanity is touched by one new product or feature or another and you might pause to consider, that reportedly, last year, 24 percent of the population of Mogadishu checked into Facebook once a week.

And so that's where we are today, inflection points are starting to arrive faster than companies and governments can deal with them in a modern day equivalent of Pandora's Box. Most of these opportunities, like the arrival of 3D printers, are dazzling and exciting but a few have a darker side which can be missed among the prevailing sense of excitement, until like computer viruses, they return to bite us.

So let's be optimistic but let's also learn the lessons of the past that sudden disruptive change frequently brings unexpected consequences in the business and social ecosystem.

Monday, 12 November 2012

The Lesson of Ludd

Two hundred years ago, in 1812, there was a strike at the Rawfolds Mill in Yorkshire. Today, we know know it as the first defeat of the machine-breaking Luddite Movement, a contemporary reaction to the first wave of disruptive technology that marked the start of the Industrial Revolution and a period of history which may hold lessons for us today, in a period of great economic uncertainty, where productivity is increasingly automated and removed from human labour.

Simply taking a moribund Europe and a struggling United States economy, as examples, every statistic of the last decade warns of trouble ahead, as the rapidly climbing curve of automation and intelligent computing overtakes the millions of individual that make-up the traditional workforce.

Some fundamental jobs requiring manual labour and human skills remain irreplaceable in a service economy but huge swathes of knowledge-based careers are rapidly disappearing into cyberspace or to the digital sweat-shops of the Far East, leaving an army of unemployed young University graduates without real prospects for the future.

Europe, in particular, floats on generous, entitlement-based, socialist economies with a disproportionately large public sector and a rapidly shrinking number of workers that pay the taxes to support it. As the poorly educated migrant-driven populations continue to grow in countries such as France, the potential for opportunity and unemployment-driven unrest in the largest cities grows with it because the jobs required no longer exist in the volumes needed.

Once upon a time, Governments would introduce huge public sector projects, such as the Pyramid of Giza or the Great Wall of China or canals and railways to employ Karl Marx's growing proletariat but today the finances no longer exist, Governments are facing chronic debt challenges or are simply bankrupt, like Greece and the intellectuals are as vulnerable to the advancing machine age as the uneducated,

What I also observe around me today is ageism in the workplace. Outside of the more senior positions in business, how many people over the age of 50 are actually employed any more? Most recently and here in the UK, you'll see the public sector 'streamlining-out' the over-fifties with generous redundancy packages, as their pensions can no longer be supported. In the private sector and particularly among technology businesses 50+ is as old as Methuselah.

Transition periods in human history never pass without pain and I can't quite subscribe to the rosy optimism in Andrew McAfee's 'Ted Talk' shown below. Luddism failed because ultimately new types of work appeared to replace the old and which delivered the mass-employment that led to the the industrial revolution. However, digital technology is rapidly displacing the widest spectrum of human skills and continues to grow at a geometric rate. If you follow the progress of Moore's Law and concede that 75% of human skills and intelligence can be automated out of the workplace, making companies more profitable as a consequence, then the outlook for the workforce and for employment looks increasingly bleak.

So where do we go in this expanding transition economy where large numbers of human workers are no longer needed? 'Economies run on ideas' but no politician or economist can answer this riddle without using 'Hope' somewhere in the answer.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

A Rough Tech's Guide to Istanbul

Several days in Istanbul last week woke me up to the fact that Apple's iPad is not only pervasive and disruptive technology but it's increasingly ubiquitous as well. Only a matter of two years into to its production cycle as a piece of commodity electronics, it shows us the shape of things to come.

Aside from watching other tourists wandering around with their iPads held up in front of them, using its camera to take photographs of Istanbul's magnificent historical sites, my own served two specific purposes.

The first of these was having several guidebook 'apps' and interactive sites, pre-loaded with city maps. Wave goodbye to maps and guide-books, which must be a financial blow to the small army of hawkers outside Hagia Sophia, trying to make a few Turkish Lira, selling both.

There was real comfort being able to explore the old quarter of Istanbul, without any chance of becoming lost. The GPS on my iPad and my iPhone not only gave me an exact position on the city street map but helpfully pointed-out the nearest historical attraction with a direct link into either Wikipedia or the Istanbul tourist guide. Without it, I doubt I would never have discovered the fabulous subterranean cistern museum, hidden away in plain sight.

Trip Advisor is now maturing rapidly as a useful guide to just about everything the business or occasional traveller needs and of course it conveniently suggests the best and most recommended tourist locations within easy walking distance of any GPS position. This is something that restaurants and hotels in many countries desperately need to come to grips with, as they don't realise that their business can be made or killed by bad online reviews.

What comes next in the technology within the next five years is obvious. Augmented reality, either by simply viewing through the iPad or Galaxy screen and camera or through the arrival of Google-driven spectacles.

I'm anticipating to be able to visit the Top Kapi palace museum one day and point my device at any exhibit and have all the historical and item information overlaid on the screen, much like a heads-up display, as already happens on my 'Night Sky' astronomy app on my iPad.

As for what come after this, one can only imagine but in only two short years, 'Rough Guide' tourism has changed forever.

Friday, 26 October 2012

With Each Passing Week

Following on from yesterday's e-crime congress, Mid-year Forum in London, I had a few thoughts, based on the presentations and my own ideas of the constantly evolving risks we face.

William Gibson
So let's accept that that the arrival of the 'Internet of Things' and 'Always-on' technologies is creating a constantly growing surface opportunity for the kinds of sophisticated criminals that once use to exist only in the imagination of the science-fiction author, William Gibson.

What concerns me after a decade of chairing and speaking at e-crime and info security conferences, is the shortage of new and even radical ideas and answers, as business and industry struggles to keep pace with the parabolic curve of exploitation, vulnerability and criminal opportunity.

In the middle of the biggest recession in sixty years, many businesses are even more focused on cutting their technology costs that building a resilient defense posture and the language of risk has changed very little over the last five years.

Most organisations are now on familiar terms with 'Blended threats,' 'Advanced Persistent Threats,'  'Denial of Service,' 'Spyware,' 'Crimeware,' 'Malware' and much of the depressingly expanding lexicon of e-crime.

Yesterday, we heard that 'security solutions are fractured' and new strategies are enabling hackers to hide malicious traffic where security doesn't know where to look. I'm worried we are so busy looking on one familiar direction, that we may not be keeping-up with the arms race, as it evolves in quite different directions, the subject of cyber-warfare and terrorism aside and that may now be heading towards the theft, aggregation and analysis of what is increasingly described as 'Big Data.'

The kinds of  Big Data tools that were once only available to wealthy corporations are increasingly within-range of well-funded criminal gangs who can buy a new generation of cloud-based services on demand.  to achieve their goals. What these might be or even look like, it's hard to say but if you take the underground economy as it is today and project the direction of its potential evolution, then some conclusions are unavoidable, even if these are simply speculation for now.

There's absolutely no doubt that we know a great deal about risk and exploitation, after all, it's an almost daily occurrence for large organisations today. A $20 billion dollar industry has a vast army of useful and frequently effective point solutions but the evidence clearly shows that no amount of investment in security offers any form of magic bullet against the risk of compromise or data theft from an army of highly sophisticated and motivated adversaries.

The security industry reminds me of a traditional Egyptian market. Crowded, busy and with some of the  merchandise on offer varying very little over the years; just the packaging changes colour.

If I'm not going to be back wringing my hands over the landscape of risk in another decade, much like a did with my 'Trustworthy Computing Report' in 2002, then we need to see the industry or the analysts stepping-up with some new and original ideas to challenge an arms race which I would argue we are in danger of losing, inch by inch with each passing week.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Software and Chips

Night Vision Nikon
There’s a conversation running through the camera community at present, that certain manufacturers are disabling features in order to switch them on, one by one in subsequent product releases.

To me, it sounds as if the technology is now moving so quickly in this particular space, with product advances such as Lytro, that there’s seemingly little commercial point in releasing a new camera with all the super new, software-driven features in one go. Instead, as the product design teams work on new chips and new software, which can take a couple of years, it may make more sense to dribble out the features over a period of time to keep the sales going.

Otherwise, why would you buy the next expensive upgrade, if like me, what you have is perfectly good for now? The same conversation could conceivably extend to all kinds of software-driven commodity products where manufacturers depend on quarterly and annual sales targets. You only have to think of the iPhone being jailbroken and already there’s a suggestion that one major camera manufacturer has had its software successfully hacked and new, hitherto hidden features revealed as a consequence. Which brings me back to the argument that has been raging over the past two weeks between the United States Government and the giant Chinese telco, Huawei.

Several years ago, I recall conversations and expressions of concern, surrounding the close relationship between Huawei, British Telecom and the delivery of Chinese-manufactured hardware across the spectrum of UK Government departments.

Reflecting what we have heard from the United States Congress in recent weeks, some observers were concerned that spy ware could successfully be concealed in the hardware, quite invisible in the likes of compiled keyboard chips. The joke in circulation at the time was that we shouldn’t have to worry about the Chinese stealing our national secrets because they have them already, together with our European partners, either through spies or their huge army of hackers.

So do I think the Chinese have been spying on us? Of course I do and there’s a huge volume of evidence to support this. Are state actors involved? Once again the evidence is very powerful and they also appear to work in 9-5 shifts at some well-defined locations in the Chinese mainland.

Is Huawei a national security risk as the United States Government suggests? I really don’t know but I do hope that our security services and GCHQ are up to the task of remediating any risk that we may face as a consequence of outsourcing so much of our critical infrastructure to companies controlled by foreign governments, who at best, we share an uneasy political relationship.

Monday, 15 October 2012

From Bradford to Beijing

I wanted to return to the theme, briefly touched-upon in the last blog entry and that's what will happen when computers cease to merely assist us in making discoveries but discover things for themselves. Perhaps things that are too complex for most of us to understand, like abstruse mathematics?

A Professor of Applied Mathematics at Cornell University. Steven Strogatz, argues that we are living in a special window of time, stretching from the dawn of the scientific revolution, 350 years ago, to a point, a few decades into the future. Only people living in this window can say they truly understand the world in which they live. Why is this so? It's because as the volume of knowledge and 'Big Data' continues to expand at a near geometric rate, we are building a web, so tangled and so complex in terms of supporting information and infrastructure, it is rapidly running away from our limited human ability to make sense of it.

Samuel Arbesman, in ARC magazine, argues that the worry begins when we arrive at ideas so complex that even an Einstein, Hawkings or a Kasparov might be defeated and that these might only be understood by one person in a billion, at the very far end of the human spectrum of intelligence. That's of course where machines and analysis come into the picture. Either computers so sophisticated and powerful that they tell us simply what we need to know or a new generation of highly-skilled, data analysts who can tease patterns of useful knowledge and new ideas from a blizzard of data.

Personally, I'm not sure where it all ends because quite simply, we haven't started coming to grips with a problem which may start to dominate the computing and economic debate within a decade.

What I do know, is that here in the Western economies, we are completely unprepared, educationally, emotionally and technically, to deal with the post-industrial, data-packed demand that will soon be coming our way. It's like the industrial revolution all over again, except that this time the future won't be born in small towns like Bradford but rather from sprawling mega-cities like Beijing

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Big Data - Big Limits

It must be more than twenty years since I predicted that one day, we would be able to cram all the world's data into a single optical disk. I recall, that I was writing an article about Apple Computer, perhaps it was for Computer Weekly, with Apple very much a niche player at the time and Steve Jobs, as ever, well ahead of the curve, had expressed real excitement about the technology.

Of course, I was wrong in one very important respect. All the world's data or the sum of human knowledge, twenty years ago, is only a fraction of what it is today, at a time when IDC reports that three exabytes of new data are created each twenty-four hours. That's two to the sixtieth bytes or simply a billion gigabytes; I'm told about 50,000 years worth of DVD quality video. As volumes of data continue to grow at near exponential rates, the prevailing 'Big Data' debate surrounds the very real challenge of storing and making sense of it all, let alone the the privacy implications of capturing every keystroke and query for pattern and behaviour analysis.

In October's ARC Magazine, Samuel Arbesman worries that soon, we will no longer be able to understand a large fraction of the knowledge we have created and in 'Scientific American 2010' Danny Hillis makes a similar point. Hillis argued that that we have moved from the Enlightenment, a period where logic and reason could bring understanding, to the Entanglement, where everything is so unbelievably interconnected, that we can no longer understand systems of our own making.

Arbesman speculates that for a greater part of human history, the vast majority of humanity has understood its surroundings according to the knowledge of the day: "From the four elements to the workings of the screw and the pulley, a significant fraction of the world's knowledge was within the grasp of most individuals." He adds: "As our world as become more complex and knowledge has increased rapidly, a smaller and smaller fraction of society has felt it has a true-enough understanding of everything."

This is a theme I would like to explore a little further in the weeks and months ahead, as I think further on the nature of physical limits and our ability to draw meaningful and useful conclusions from seemingly infinite volumes of human behaviour, expressed and delivered in neat digital packets.