Sunday, 29 May 2011

The information explosion and unemployment

Even before the Internet the volume of knowledge generated by humankind was growing exponentially and in the West this has been happening since the Renaissance. The Internet (and its associated software, such as the World Wide Web) is one product of the spirit of enquiry and innovation which has driven this growth.

In fact the Internet actually accelerates growth by allowing academics and innovators worldwide to exchange data and ideas, leading to the cross fertilisations and fusions which breed new knowledge.

 The Internet has not only led to greater quantities of information and better access to it.. Applications such as Wikipedia  have also proved a powerful way of refining and updating knowledge.

Off-setting this beneficial use of computers, packet switching and data networks, has been the swamping of online users with more information than they can possibly digest.  Doctors, lawyers, academics, engineers, researchers, civil servants, lawyers, adminstrators, accountants, executives and managers can all be so overloaded with emails, reports, patents, articles and books that they cannot develop the insight, judgement and human interaction needed to do their core work.

Home based surfers like me also have to look through a lot of Google output to get to what they want, all the time being distracted by pop up notices inviting us to buy, run, install, download, update, sign up, change browsers or respond to a survey. Computer crashing and frustratingly slow responses are, in my experience, becoming increasingly frequent, even as the hardware evolves, as anti-virus scans, hastily developed software and at least apparent overloading of channel capacity with junk and trivia grow ever more common.

Could this problem of information overload be turned into a partial solution to unemployment?

Computers with clever programming by clever people, are good at shunting data around, slicing it up, mining it and putting it into boxes. But to allow us to make real use of information perhaps we need people able to focus human judgement and imaginative insight onto the data streams and knit them into shape. The human brain working in conjunction with search engines such as Google (itself a product of the brain)  should be able to filter down and rationalise the stream of search results directed at the user. Organisations such as Google could employ home-based, articulate people to do this in response to certain frequently occurring searches– one might call them knowledge workers. Lots of them would be needed.

Companies and institutions could  also employ professional knowledge workers, many of them working full time on site,  to provide academics, scientists, engineers, doctors, lawyers, administrators and finance workers with something more useful than reams of raw information or bibliographic references. Knowing the needs of their clients they could sift, prioritise and pre-digest the output of search engines and compile tailored reports.

I am vaguely aware that some moves along these lines are already happening but there is not yet much evidence of it.

Overall, the idea is to provide islands of insight and structured information in an ocean of data. This could give us all more time to think and would create purposeful employment for many. And if IT growth could be more measured and made to give us a better user experience, all the better.

 Is anybody listening?


Author 2077 AD

Friday, 27 May 2011

Wenzhou and Christians in China

One of the magazines I read regularly is Prospect. In the March issue Jack Straw, an ex-minister from the Labour government in the UK, reviews a book called Civilisation: the West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson.

In the review it emerges that there is a large Protestant community in Wenzhou, just south of Shanghai, in the Zhejiang region. I find the size and prosperity of such a place in the midst of a large officially atheist country rather surprising, although I had heard previously that Christianity was growing vigorously in China.
So here are a few facts which might interest you:

  • Wenzhou, with a population of 8 million, is reputed to be the most enterprising city in China

  • There is a community based around 1,339 state-approved churches (although I’ve seen higher figures cited elsewhere).

  •  This and other religious communities in China, ‘double both as credit networks and supply chains of creditworthy, trustworthy fellow believers.’

The Chinese government are very much concerned about corruption and potential instability, especially in the event that economic growth falters. The powers that be may be holding off in their customery persecution of religion because they have some interest in letting such Christ-centred networks prosper and perhaps do for China what the Protestant business and innovation networks did for the USA and parts of Europe. In fact a recent BBC report suggests the Chinese government is actually partially financing new churches and Christian social work (e.g. care for the elderly).

History is full of the totally unexpected. There are now more Christians (around 100 million in all) than members of the Communist Party (70 million). It will be interesting to see if the current rate of growth continues.

Author, 2077 AD

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Has road traffic in the West peaked?

Transport planners assume economic growth and car use go together; an assumption which is certainly true for the developing world.  And because the latter accounts for most of the world population the overall link between prosperity and car use looks likely to continue, unless some unforeseen factor, like an environmental or fuel crisis, sets in. China, e.g., is forecast to have more cars on the road than the USA by 2030 (Economic Policy, 2008).

Over the last six months or so, speaking to fellow drivers in the UK, there seems to be anecdotal evidence that the roads have become noticeably less busy. I also read a couple of news items which seemed to support this. A temporary blip in the upward trend?

Then I came across an article by James Crabtree in the May issue of Prospect which suggests a long term decline in private automobile use not only in the UK but in much of the west could have started.

This article reports that at the end of 2010 Lee Schipper (University of California, Berkeley) and Adam Millard-Ball  (Stanford, California) finished a study of traffic in 8 countries, including the UK. It was entitled Are we reaching peak travel?  It found that from 2003 the long established correlation between prosperity and travel broke down abruptly, with the mileage per vehicle falling. Schipper and Millard-Ball guessed this was due to congestion and rising fuel costs.

A study by Phil Goodwin et al at Oxford University suggests a more radical trend, at least in the UK. Government travel surveys show that from around 1995 the growth in  miles travelled per car had begun first to slow and then to reverse. The number of trips per car is also falling.

The number of young people driving in the UK is declining quite steeply. The percentage of 17-20 year olds with driving licenses fell from 48 to 36% between the early 1990s and 2007.

Renault, BMW, Audi and other companies are taking this seriously, apparently, as they plan how to sell transport technology to the coming generation.

Maybe young people are more interested in surfing the web and communicating through social networks than living the lifestyles of their parents while paying enormous insurance premiums, fuel charges and interest on car loans. It could also be connected with the steeply rising numbers of university students in the UK.

Whether this is the start of a long term trend we cannot be certain but western governments and the motor industry need to stop assuming ever rising use of the private car as a foregone conclusion.

Author, 2077 AD

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Getting around via the Magnificent 7

Our present method of getting from A to B is based largely on  door-to-door transport by private automobile.

It is not surprising that most people use their own automobile, sitting in comfort, listening to music or talk, or just conversing with a passenger, rather than venture onto public transport. Just jump in, turn the ignition and you’re off.

However, either through war or resource depletion, this will not always be sustainable as the main way of getting people around a country. Not only is it fuel inefficient it is also resource hungry: manufacturing of millions of automobiles each year uses huge amounts of water, metals, plastics, glass and energy.

So how might personal transport be tackled in future?  It may be just a matter of marrying together two technologies: transport technology and information technology.

Transport technology. In going from A to B you have to adopt one or more of 7 modes of transport:  train, aircraft, metro, tram, bus, taxi or automobile. Let’s call them the Magnificent 7.  Each part of the journey (e.g. from door to station by taxi or from station X to station Y by train) has to be separately negotiated, planned and paid for. This can be troublesome and time consuming.

Information technology. In the last decade there has been a revolution in information technology in much of the world. We are connected up by mobile phones, laptops and PCs via the Internet and various phone networks based on a labyrinth of transmitters, copper wires and optical fibres. Banks, businesses and individuals are all interconnected. The evolution of computer, switching and propagation hardware has gone hand in hand with an ability to write extraordinarily powerful software.

Combining the two. In principle any journey via one or more of the Magnificent 7 (e.g. a trip involving a taxi, a train and a bus) can be modelled by software and optimised for the customer.  The potential traveller is presented with a few journey options, including total duration and cost, to choose from.

The cost per mile to the customer should be lower because of the larger usage of public transport, improved overall efficiency and cross subsidisation. All the forms of transport could be electronically interconnected to each other, to each potential customer and to the banks. GPS could be used to monitor the customer’s position and just one, universal type of swipe card could be used throughout the Magnificent 7.

How might this work out in practice?

Suppose I wanted to travel from my house to a house 200 miles (320 km) away - today, starting in the next hour. I type in my destination on a smart phone and the system comes up with 3 routes costing different amounts and with different journey times.

 Having chosen a journey plan a taxi arrives. I pay using a swipe card. It deposits me at the rail station where I use the same swipe card. A fast train covers the bulk of the journey, is spacious and comfortable, and at the other end the same card is used to pay for a minibus to my final destination. No fumbling with notes and because the driver gets a living wage one is spared the nuisance of tipping (still a common practice in the west).

It might even be possible to integrate one’s own car into such a system to enable sharing with strangers, providing they are willing to take the risk (e.g. of hearing me ranting about my latest blog) at some standard rate per mile.

Overall, the energy consumption per passenger mile should be greatly reduced as the hurtling of a monstrous gas gulper up a motorway (freeway) at high speed with a single stressed-out occupant became an anachronism or even a surreal memory.

 Do we have to wait for an oil crisis? Global warming is enough of a problem to justify emergency action starting yesterday.

Author, 2077 AD

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Chimpanzees and a free lunch

In the UK magazine New Scientist (7 May) there is an absorbing article by Michael Brooks called ‘What we’ll never know’.  This must of course be confined to areas of knowledge we can at least conceive of, otherwise we can’t even talk about them.

It makes this point via an observation from the Astronomer Royal, Lord Martin Rees, concerning chimpanzees. Chimpanzees, he says, not only do not understand quantum mechanics but they are not even aware of it. They don’t even know that they don’t know it. And similarly with us in relation to the whole realm of reality. Rees puts it this way.

‘There is no reason to believe that our brains are matched to understanding every level of reality.’

The article talks about a number of limits we are aware of: the cosmic horizon, which recedes at the speed of light; Godel’s theorem of undecidability, from which it follows that we can never build a description of reality based on mathematical models; and two limits about which there is disagreement as to whether they are limits to our knowledge – life and consciousness.

However, it emerges that some scientists are attempting to probe beyond the limits of reason by trying to ‘explain’ how the universe started. In their desperation to deny an uncaused first cause, i.e. that the universe came into existence from some source they will never be able to understand, certain cosmologists are seriously trying to propose that it created itself out of nothing – a free lunch. On p.36 the article states that

 ‘the universe could have come into existence spontaneously when its energy state momentarily flickered away from zero.’

How can a universe have any energy state at all if it does not already exist? This is claiming that some entity with an energy state of zero ‘flickered’ into existence. The entity was not nothing, but something with an energy state of zero. Nothing is a complete absence of existence, not something out of which a whole universe can emerge. (NB: it is possible for a system to have zero energy; some cosmologists maintain that the entire universe has zero energy when you balance negative against positive energy, i.e. attractive against repulsive energy.)

In the same paragraph the author invokes Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which states that the uncertainty in the measurement of energy multiplied by the uncertainty in the time at which it is measured is equal to a constant numerical value (known as Planck’s constant, h). A consequence of Heisenberg’s principle is that no system can have precisely zero energy. If it did its position in time would be infinitely uncertain, because its energy would be known with infinite precision, i.e. with zero uncertainty. The equation would give infinity x zero, a mathematical absurdity.

So how could the entity which preceded the universe have zero energy? In fact the article itself states that the uncertainty principle

‘shatters the notion that anything ever has exactly zero energy.’

Even if one suspends disbelief and accepts that the universe (or, if you wish, the entity which preceded it) did have an energy state before it existed, then according to Heisenberg that state could not be exactly zero.

It comes as a relief to me that things cannot just pop into existence from nowhere and at random. There is no free lunch. It certainly would not be good for science but could herald a highly unsatisfactory reality with no labyrinth of scientific laws waiting to be revealed.

So  I suggest the first cause of the universe must remain beyond the limits of scientific knowledge, just as quantum mechanics is beyond the realm of chimpanzees, and that we concentrate on trying to understand how it works.

 There is a long way to go.

Author, 2077 AD

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Growth without pain: how to measure it

Recently there has been talk in the media and among philosophers, sociologists, economists, scientists and politicians of measuring happiness instead of just concentrating on economic output as an indication of a nation’s prosperity.
Does this make sense?  Happiness is granted to different people in different ways. A stock trader, a research scientist, a philanthropist, a control freak and a drug addict could all be made happy by different means. So how can we compile an index of happiness that has any meaningful value as a guide to indicate, and help plan, the overall well being of a nation? One could encourage everyone to become a drug addict, give the drug to everyone and give them all a questionnaire.   The resulting data would indicate a completely happy nation; but one that few would want to live in.
Nevertheless, there does seem to be a growing awareness that the standard way of measuring a country’s standard of living, gross domestic product (GDP), is inadequate.
 GDP is defined as the sum total of the following:
 investment spending on (shares, bonds etc.)
consumer spending (on cars, clothes, entertainment etc.)
government spending (on health, local authorities, defence etc.)
the surplus or deficit of export income minus import spending
This is certainly a good measure of money changing hands and when divided by the population of a country  has in the past served as a reasonable indicator of standard of living for nations in their earlier stages of development.
 However, it includes money spent on, for example:
clearing up after thousands of road accidents
financing unemployment
treating addiction to alcohol, heroin and other drugs
legal and social costs incurred by broken families
legal and social costs associated with crime
cost of  recovering taxes lost through evasion
imprisonment of criminals
waste disposal
cleaning up after pollution
Consequently, the more road accidents, the more people thrown out of work, the more drug addicts, the more broken families, the more crime, the more evasion of tax, the more waste generated and the more rubbish and toxic materials dumped into the environment, the more will be the money spent on dealing with these problems, and so the higher will be the GDP. And leaders boast when GDP increases.
The hard earned wealth generated by useful activities could be better spent if such problems did not occur in the first place. It may test our ingenuity and will to succeed but a society generating fewer such problems would be more efficient and give us a better quality of life.
Instead of spending billions of  dollars or pounds or euros on dealing with road accidents the money could be spent on caring for the elderly and financing the arts. The huge cost of waste disposal and pollution clean up passed on to tax payers by irresponsible business and consumers could be knocked off corporation tax, possibly enabling shorter working hours, or spent on preserving biodiversity. A more efficient society would also release money for improving public places and subsidising charities. There must be a host of other examples.
So is there a better parameter than GDP that could be used for gauging a nation’s well being?
Possibly. Such negative spending could be subtracted from GDP to create a new indicator of prosperity, which might be called the net domestic product (NDP). Unfortunately, there is a problem with this; but only a short term one: you could make the NDP higher by simply spending less on solving the problems of a dysfunctional society and economy.
Yet this would be self defeating. As less money was spent on fixing the problems they would catch up on us and the efficiency of the whole system would decline, resulting in a diminished output, i.e. a lower NDP. Overall, in the longer term, the incentive for rulers in a parliamentary democracy would be to make the country more pleasant to live in and more efficient. If the parameter were adopted internationally I suggest that progress in global warming, environmental degradation, poverty and food shortages would be much faster as nations competed to increase their NDP.
I suspect someone has already thought of this but if so there can't have been much discussion of it in the media.

If you have anything to say on this it might be possible to incorporate your comments in a follow up posting.
Autthor, 2077 AD