Eternity versus Infinity

I just completed reading, at long last, Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity. Like many of his novels, EoE is a morality play, an explanation, a whodunit, and a bit of a prank. The hero Andrew Harlan, is a repressed buffoon at the mercy of various sinister forces. Eventually Harlan finds his way to a truth he doesn’t want to accept. In EoE Asimov plays with time travel in terms of probabilities. This mathematical exploration of time travel resolves many of the cliché paradoxes that scifi usually twists itself into. Go back in time and prevent your mother from meeting your father and what you have done is not suicide. You have simply reduced probability of your future existence.

In EoE Asimov considers two competing desires in human culture: The urge to keep things the same forever and the urge to expand and explore. Asimov distills these urges into the Eternals, who fight what they think of as dangerous change by altering time, and the Infinites, who sabotage the Eternals because they believe “Any system… which allows men to choose their own future, will end by choosing safety and mediocrity…”

In one masterful stroke Asimov explains why we haven’t invented time travel. If we did, we’d kill baby Hitler! But then we’d work on elimination of all risks! Eventually we’d trap ourselves on planet Earth and die out slowly and lonely when our single world gets hit by a comet or our Sun goes nova. In EoE, Asimov has a force of undercover Infinites working tirelessly to keep the probability of time travel to a near zero value. This way humanity continues to take risks, eventually discovers space flight, and avoids extinction by populating the galaxy.

You’re probably not going to read EoE. It’s a bit dry for the 21st century. There are no superheroes, dragons, or explicit sex. While there is a strong female character she spends most of her time out of sight and playing dumb. EoE is a product of the 1950s. Yet For a book, where a computer is called a “computaplex” and the people who use them are consusingly called “computers”, EoE’s underlying message and themes apply very closely to our current age.

In our time, we have the science and technology to move forward by leaps and bounds to an unimaginable infinite–and we’re rapidly doing so except when we elect leaders who promise to return us to the past and we follow creeds that preach intolerance to science. I’ve read blog posts and op-eds that claim we can’t roll back the future. But we seem to be working mightily to pause progress. Just like the Eternals in EoE many of us are concerned about protecting the present from the future. Teaching Creationism alongside Evolution, legislating Uber and AirBnB out of existence, and keeping Americans in low value manufacturing jobs are just a few examples of acting like Asimov’s Eternals and avoiding the risks of technological progress at all costs.

I get it! I know that technological advancement has many sharp edges and unexpected consequences. Improve agriculture with artificial ingredients and create an obesity epidemic. Improve communication with social media and create a fake news epidemic. People are suffering and will continue to suffer as software eats the world and robots sweep up the crumbs.

But what Asimov teaches us, in a book written more than 70 years ago, is that if we succeed in staying homogenous-cultured, English-speaking, tradition-bound, God-fearing, binary-gendered, unvaccinated, and non-GMO we’re just getting ready to die out. When the next dinosaur-killer comet strikes, we will be stuck in our Garden of Eden as it goes up in flames. As Asimov admits, it might take thousands of years for humanity to die out in our self-imposed dark ages, but an expiration date means oblivion regardless of how far out it is.

Asimov shows us in EoE, and in rest of his works as well, that there is a huge payoff for the pain of innovation and progress. We get to discover. We get to explore. We get to survive.

Let’s face it. We don’t need genetic code editors and virtual reality. We don’t need algorithms and the Internet of Things. Many of us will never be comfortable with these tools and changes. Many of us long for the days when men were men, women stayed out of the way, and jobs lasted for a lifetime. This is not a new phenomenon: The urge to return to an earlier golden age has been around since Socrates complained that writing words down would destroy the art of conversation.

At the moment, it feels like the ideals of the Eternals are trumping the ideals of the Infinites. While a slim minority of entrepreneurs tries to put the infinity of space travel and the technological singularity within our reach, a majority of populist politicians are using every trick in the mass communications book to prevent the future from happening. We have our own versions of Asimov’s Eternals and Infinites today. You know their names.

Like Asimov, I worry about the far future. We’re just a couple of over-reactions to a couple of technological advances away from scheduling the next dark ages. That’s not a good idea. The last dark ages nearly wiped Europe of off the face of the earth when the Black Plague hit. Humanity might not survive the next world crisis if our collective hands are to fearful of high-tech to use it.

At the end of EoE Harlan figures out that, spoiler alert, taking big risks is a good idea. Harlan chooses the Infinites over the Eternals. I’d like us to consider following in Harlan’s footsteps. We can’t eliminate all technological risks! Heck, we can’t even eliminate most risks in general! But we can embrace technological progress and raise the probability of our survival as a species.

Faceless Phone

About twelve years ago I attended a management leadership training offsite and received a heavy glass souvenir. When I got home after the event I put that thingamabob, which officially is called a “tombstone”, up on a shelf above my desk. Little did I know that after more than a decade of inert inactivity that souvenir would launch me into the far future of the Internet of Things with an unexpected thud.

Last night before bed I set my iPhone 6 Plus down on my desk and plugged it in for charging. Then I reach up to the shelf above to get something for my son and BANG! The tombstone leapt off the shelf and landed on my desk. It promptly broke in half and smashed the screen of my iPhone. In retrospect I see now that storing heavy objects above one’s desk is baiting fate and every so often fate takes the bait.

I’ve seen many people running around the streets of Manhattan with cracked screens. My screen was not just cracked. It was, as the kids say, a crime scene. I knew that procrastination was not an option. This phone’s face was in ruins and I needed to get it fixed immediately.

No problem! There are several wonderful Apple Stores near me and I might even have the phone covered under Apple Care. Wait! There was a problem! I had several appointments in the morning and I wasn’t getting to any Apple Stores until late afternoon.

Why was this a big deal? Have you tried to navigate the modern world without your smart phone lately? No music, no maps, no text messages! Off the grid doesn’t begin to cover it! My faceless phone was about to subject me to hours of isolation, boredom, and disorientation!

Yes, I know, a definitive first world problem. Heck! I lived a good 20 years before smart phones became a thing. I could handle a few hours without podcasts, Facebook posts, and Pokemon Go.

In the morning I girded my loins, which is what one does when one’s iPhone is smashed. I strapped on my Apple Watch and sat down at my desk for a few hours of work-related phone calls, emails, and chat messages.

Much to my surprise even though I could not directly access my phone almost all of it features and services were available. While the phone sat on my desk with a busted screen its inner workings were working just fine. I could make calls and text messages with my watch, with my iMac, and with voice commands. I didn’t have to touch my phone to use it! I could even play music via the watch and listen via bluetooth headphones. I was not cut off from the world!

(Why do these smart phones have screens anyway?)

Around lunch time I had to drive to an appointment and I took the faceless phone with me. I don’t have Apple Carplay but my iPhone synch up fine with my Toyota’s entertainment system. Since I don’t look at my phone while driving the cracked screen was not an issue. It just never dawned on me before today that I don’t have to touch the phone to use it.

I imagine that our next paradigm shift will be like faceless phones embedded everywhere. You’ll have CPUs and cloud access in your wrist watch, easy chair, eye glasses, and shoes. You’ll have CPUs and cloud access in your home, car, office, diner, and shopping mall. You’ll get text messages, snap pictures, reserve dinner tables, and check your calendar without looking at a screen.

Now, we’re not quite there yet. I couldn’t use all the apps on my phone without touching them. In fact I could only use the a limited set of the built-in apps and operating system features that Apple provides. I had to due without listening to my audiobook on Audible and I couldn’t catch any Pokemon. Siri and Apple Watch can’t handle those third party app tasks yet.

But we’re close. This means the recent slow down in smart phone sales isn’t the herald of hard tech times. Its just the calm before the gathering storm of the next computer revolution. This time the computer in your pocket will move to the clouds. Apple will be a services company! (Google, Facebook, and Amazon too!) Tech giants will become jewelry, clothing, automobile, and housing companies.

Why will companies like Apple have to stop making phones and start making mundane consumer goods like cufflinks and television sets to shift us into the Internet of Things?

Because smooth, flawless integration will be the new UX. Today user experience is all about a well designed screen. In the IoT world, which I briefly and unexpectedly visited today, there won’t be any user interface to see. Instead the UX will be embedded in the objects we touch, use, and walk through.

There will still be some screens. Just as today we still have desktop computers for those jobs that voice control, eye rotations, and gestures can’t easily do. But the majority of consumers will use apps without icons, listen to playlists without apps, and watch videos without websites.

In the end I did get my iPhone fixed. But I’m going to keep visiting the IoT future now that I know how to find it.

First Day of the Year

Welcome to 2016 day one. Imagine if on today we could accurately predict what will happen in 2016? We could write a blog post with predictions and then gloat when they all come true!

Here are some of the outcomes I would like to be able to predict:

  • Which movie will win best picture?
  • Which candidates will win the democratic and republican nominations and from there win the Whitehouse?
  • Which football team will win the Super Bowl and which baseball team will win the World Series?
  • Which stocks should be bought and which should be sold?

But it’s hard to predict questions like these for several reasons. We don’t have all the facts and we don’t know how to rank the facts we do have. The facts can and most likely will change. And even if we have everything we need to make an accurate prediction, it would still only be a probability and even if an outcome is 99.999% likely to happen there is still a slim chance, 0.0001%, that it won’t happen.

One approach to predictions is to use the wisdom of the commons and just ask people what they think. This how opinion polls work. The problem here is that much of the time people don’t know their own opinions and how a question is asked creates bias towards an answer. Not to mention that people just change their minds over time which makes for stale predictions.

Another approach is to use the wisdom of the market and create a marketplace where people can bet on outcomes. This is really what the stock market is. The prices of Apple, Microsoft, or Alphabet shares aren’t a valuation of what those companies are worth today but what they will be worth at some point in the future. Sadly, the stock market has a spotty record at predicting the future health and success of a company.

And you can always ask an expert, usually the least accurate way to make a prediction, what she thinks is going to happen. There are enough experts out there that one or two, out of hundreds or thousands, ends up getting lucky and predicting accurate outcomes. There’s a movie out now about how 3-4 people predicted the mortgage crisis of 2008. Sometimes even if you know the future other people are not going to listen. They can’t! They are too invested in the present to make the changes needed to avoid catastrophe. And a thousand years from now we might lean that the financial meltdown in 2008 prevented a worse outcome!

Alan Kay and Abraham Lincoln both said “The best way to predict the future is to create/invent it.”

Given the difficulties involved in making accurate and reliable predictions and the nature of probability it best not to focus on guessing the future. IT is a more productive activity to help bring about the future that you want happen. Both Kay and Lincoln were pretty smart guys!

So here are some of the things I’d like to make happen in 2016…

  • I’d like the Internet to go faster so I’m going to do my best to speed up the performance of websites, mobile apps, and services I’m responsible for. Waiting for resources to load is killing all of us. We don’t need new tools and frameworks to speed up the Internet. We just need to do our jobs better!
  • I’d like there to be less misinformation and more accurate information available on the Internet so I’m going to encourage thoughtful, civil, responsible people to blog and post more. Maybe that will crowd out some of the noise.
  • I’d like more people to enjoy Math and Science and coding so I’m going to be more an advocate of learning Calculus in middle age, keeping up with Science at any age, and learning to code from non-Computer Science backgrounds. (I love music, novels, and movies but Geometry and Algorithms deserve appreciation too!)

I predict these tasks will be tough but I’ll make some progress—especially since a whole lot of other people are working toward the same goals.