Saturday, 7 January 2017

October 10th, 2030

Daphne Lee was frustrated. It was the second time this week that the AUTORIDE self driving automobile had made a mistake in the booking. Instead of arriving at the pick up location where she wanted to be picked up, it had arrived at the destination. Standing by the sidewalk, she worriedly scanned thru the fuzzy map on her rather bulky ONEMOB device for other nearby AUTODRIVEs, but she was resigned to the fact that there was not much she could do this close to her departure time to find another one. They had to be booked at least 24hrs in advance.

 She decided to drive her 15 year old hybrid car to work, but secretly hoped that today of all days she would not get ticketed at the gantry – afterall, who could predict if the smartgrid had an excess of carbon credits that day or not. She had for this very reason, recently topped up her BITNOTE account.

 At 41, Daphne was senior brand director for CENTREX Pharma’s BioEnhance range of ion supplements. This month they were launching the new pill, IonPro by BioEnhance, which helped regulate the body’s ion content for those increasing number of consumers who were implanting chips in their wrists to connect them to their devices. Work was hectic and especially so, as it meant a lot for her personally. This had been her project since she had joined CENTREX three years ago. She had poured her heart and soul into getting all the different aspects right.

 Her meeting that day was with the head of R&D and product engineering team, who had asked her to convince them about the marketing plan she had come up for the IonPro product. They had cast doubts on why she was being a traditionalist and not allowing the crowdsourced brand platform to be the main channel of getting the message out to consumers. It was a critical, if not a make or break meeting.
 
Daphne had started her career back in 2015 in the erstwhile market research industry, starting off as a research executive working on traditional survey research. She had been a star, adapted to the already fast changing times in the latter half of the decade and rose up fast amongst the ranks to become the youngest account director in her company in 2022. She had immersed herself in new paradigms of research in that decade and had taken an active lead in transforming the research industry to be mobile first. Her paper on “Non-intrusive mobile surveys using key logging on social media sites” had even won the ESOMAR Congress award in 2018. But after 2024, things had started changing and for no mistake of her, a lot of her work and personal world were about the change.
 
2023 and 2024 had been in many ways a watershed years, but in a jarring kind of way. Multiple systemic shocks had sort of converged leading to multiple bubbles imploding that years from a tech perspective. The tech industry and the entire ecosystem of the commanding heights of economy which had been built up on that hype faced a significant set back from which today in 2030, the sector was still recovering. It had widespread impact on many parts of everyday consumer life, which by then had become very tightly locked into a tech fuelled world which was expected to be ever advancing.
 
Four shocks came to a head in 2023 which caused the unravelling.
 
First, the realization that Moore’s law of constant increase in processing power was not going to hold as it had come up against physical limits of miniaturization. Many academics as early as 1990s had warned of the limits of Moore’s law, but with advancing technology in manufacturing science, the processing power boom had continued another 20 years without becoming a serious threat to growth. This had coincided with the explosion of mobile computing and the challengers of Moore’s law had been side lined for short term growth. By 2018 it was evident in academic circles that the processing power increasingly demanded by consumer electronic devices in the next few years was going to be unsustainable in the current silicon based electronic technology systems. They also knew that investments in bio-mimicry and other substitutes to silicon where promising, but not yet advanced enough to replace silicon’s efficiency. But the industry faced the same problem as the energy sector where cheap fossil fuels crowded out investment in alternative energies. Similarly, cheap silicon crowded out research in other sectors – and unfortunately it did not even have the ticking time bomb that the energy industry faced due to global warming, so nobody paid any attention to the weak signals, obscure academics who warned about silicon’s limits and niche companies which offered bio-computing products.
 
The second shock was ever more telling. The world just ran out of rare earth metals (like Neodymium) which were essential to making smartphones. China which had been the main source of these rare earth metals in 2017 started tightening trade in these metals which started pushing up prices of devices which had been falling until then. Only towards the end of 2020 did the world realize that China had run out of this ore in the sense that it could be extracted at costs which had reasonable efficiencies. And China’s traditional closed door nature had not alerted the world earlier to a deep shortage of this ore. Massive retooling of the electronics industry followed in 2021 thru 2026 and many of the leading telecom equipment manufacturers had to cancel the next versions of their telecom devices. Major efforts at institutional recycling and scouring of old devices for refurbishments was instituted. Companies and economies started setting up Rare Earth Credits similar to Carbon Credits. The developing world’s adoption of smart device technology came to a grinding halt.
 
The third shock was a creeping threat as well, but it reared its ugly head in 2023 which made its impact all the more devastating. Undersea, submarine cables which carried the world’s internet bandwidth came under siege from terrorists. Proclaiming that the internet was a harbinger of the doom and filth, a terrorist group which had developed a navy and hitherto unknown submarine capabilities sabotaged multiple key undersea cables in multiple parts of the world. Instantaneously, for two months in late 2023, many parts of the world were cut off from internet completely! This caused irrevocable financial damage, but it also set in place a systemic problems affecting security like never before. Regaining access to sabotaged infrastructure is still an ongoing conflict in some parts of the world in today in 2030. Rebuilding alternative infrastructure, albeit faster, was still a set back by a few years. The gap between the internet haves and internet have-nots only grew.
 
The fourth and final shock, which particularly affected the marketing community was probably one which no one wanted to acknowledge, but was increasingly creeping into decisions. The internet had become too crowded with non-consumer data generated by AI bots which were so good that it was no longer possible for other algorithms or people to differentiate if a certain piece of content was created by an actual human being or if it was created by a malicious bot. Some of the 1st instances of this had been observed way back in 2015 when during the attacks in Paris, fake tweets of mass shootings by terrorists had surfaced misguiding law enforcement authorities about the veracity of the claims. Those had been engineered by some rogue elements, but over the next decade, the proliferation of AI algorithms and bots on the internet had grown exponentially. Researchers who had started off in using social media data to understand consumer behaviour had found some increasing benefits, but soon came up against lack of usable data. The first manifestation was increasing noise in social data. But soon, the problem deepened. It was not noise that was the problem, but being able to tell what was actual consumer generated information which correlated with actual behaviour, and what was generated by bots which had surpassed the turing test. This was further compounded by the fact that the main networks affected by this bot generate noise was the Google, Facebook and Amazon networks, which by 2019 had become virtual monopolies. These huge companies thru their search, social network and e-commerce monopolies had become the only gateways thru which consumers could access content in the internet. All advertising on digital for example was consumed mainly through Facebook video and with the launch of FaceTV even the broadcast medium had been compromised.
    
These four shocks combined had a profound effect on the scope and growth of the internet in the decade of 2020. It was only in the latter half of 2028 and 2029 that things had started coming back to the normalcy that was there before 2021. But many of the wild projections of 2030 from a couple of decades before had been discarded. Many of the base technologies which had started becoming mainstream in 2020 like 3D printing, drone delivery, data everything had remained in hibernation, not really hitting the exponential growth trajectories that were envisioned. While there was significant advancement in the base technologies, these have remained active in labs and among lead users. There are many systemic issues that need to be sorted out before these can hit the scale needed for them to have mass impact today in 2030. Consumer mindsets had ofcourse evolved, but we are only now coming to terms with the new normal.
 
Coming back to 2030, today Daphne was heading to the manufacturing hub of CENTREX in the outskirts of the city and not the workhub in the city central her company shared with others as a common work environment. As the journey took her more than an hour, she could not help but reminisce a little about those good old days back in late 2010s and early 2020s. She had owned multiple devices then -  a personal laptop and a tablet device, a wearable smart watch which alerted her to medical information and social messages. Her work life had consisted of a sleek office laptop and company smartphone. It had been a heady experience juggling multiple devices, screens and managing attention spans across the devices.
 
Today however, she has a single ONEMOB device as regulated by her rare earth credit. It is a great device with multiple functionalities and detachable segments for ease of handling, but because one requires sufficient screen size for various activities, it is by nature a slightly bulky device. Eyewear projection devices are available in the market to make it easier to see when directly projected in front of the retina, but they are still not available at mass market levels and remain niche. Bandwidth consumption restrictions mean that while she uses one device, she has to manage multiple networks. She connects on WRKMESH for her official work and SOCMESH for personal. The multiple firewalls between the two mean that doing both (work and personal) at the same time is not as seamless an experience as it had been in the past. New solutions are being introduced every other day, but still some fundamental problems needed to be sorted. And finally, she has to manage multiple payment solutions because of security and encryption requirements. She uses the BITNOTE platform for major expenses, and NICEDOLLAR for many everyday activities.
 
As Daphne pulls into the manufacturing hub facility, she is jolted back from her reverie of thinking of the world in 2010s and early 2020s. She is in 2030 now and has to deal with the new realities. Marketing has changed, but it has not changed much as well. Yes, social media is alive and thriving, but the extent of its appeal as a marketing medium is still being debated. Yes, most of the media is consumed digitally, and e-commerce is fast replacing the physical retail outlets, but not as fast as it was expected. And that is what she had come to make a case for that day to the head of the product team. That despite all the changes, the brand was still an important underlying factor defining the success of the IonPro by BioEnhance, and why she was convinced that letting it become something defined by the crowd will not get them anywhere and is not something she recommends.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

HARNESSING THE BENEFITS OF COMPLEXITY #1


Harnessing the benefits of complexity: Synopis for the concept of City State
According to the United Nations State of the World Population Report in 2007, sometime in the middle of 2007, for the first time in the history of the human civilization, the majority of people in the world started living in urban areas rather than rural regions. The 20th and 21st centuries will see the largest cumulative migration of the human race, since the time our ancestors left Africa and started populating the continents of our vast planet some hundred thousand years ago - only this time around, instead of diverging across vast spaces of land we will be converging into dense agglomerations called mega-cities. At the same time the total size of our population has been growing exponentially after one hundred millennia of linear growth. One of the consequences of the enormous growth in the population of humans on the planet – estimated to reach 7 billion by end of 2011 from as low as a billion in 1800 – has been the mass exodus from villages and migration into cities.


Expert commentators have written both in awe and appreciation of this grand re-organisation of human populations and in tones of dire warning and prophecies of cataclysm of what this drastic change might mean to the sustainability of our planet and of our race in the future.
This post is meant to be a first draft collection of thoughts exploring this significant ongoing development which also presrents a peculiar dichotomy. The simultaneous growth of two socio-economic phenomena – large scale urbanisation and exponential population growth – which seem both like mutual stimulants and deterrents of each other. I will be following up this post in the following days with more research on this topic, at the core of which will be an exploration in the idea of scale, and how the right size poses significant advantages (no puns intended), despite the complexity it might bring with it.
But before exploring this, a small digression, to describe a simulated environment which might help identify the unique nature of scale and complexity and how they spontaneously influence each other to evolve positive outcomes.
One of the most time consuming, but intensely satisfying activities I did back when I was in school and college, was play the famous strategy game Age of Empires and its various versions on my computer. First I played against opponents generated by the artificial intelligence engine of the computer program, but soon found it more interesting and challenging to pit my wits against another player in an online multiplayer format. Each player in this game takes on the role of a strategist, a puppeteer or as some would see it a central planner, with a goal to marshal ones military, economic and labour resources to advance one’s society. The game engine is built to simulate various constraints and provide comparative advantages between different societies to make the game play complex, competitive and capricious.
To achieve victory in these environments, one can adapt various different ‘strategies’, all of which essentially involve out manoeuvring one’s opponents either through – direct military conquest or in a roundabout way through sheer economic dominance, leading to the stifling and eventual collapse of the opponent’s economy. While some measure of both military and economics activities are required in either case, each of them differs in the scale of the prime activity, biasing them to military or economic nature of victory. Beginners typically start by gathering resources provided by nature and which they then allocate to build housing, military training and socio-technological infrastructure. This is then used to create armies which can go and demolish and destroy the resources and military elements of the opponent thereby achieving victory. Within this controlled environment, what makes game play engrossing is the many different tactics that player can adapt. Players can be adopt an aggressive military strategy with skirmishing bands of cavalry, infantry and ranged units which are sent roving around the map of the game universe, continuously harrowing their opponents. Or they can adapt a defensive stance, where the player protects ones units with a large standing army, supported by fortifications to ‘claim’ territory and protect it against the intrusion by armies of the opponent.
But as one advances up the difficulty levels and as the opponent’s competence level increases, what becomes evident is that both an aggressive military force and defensive fortifications, both become hygiene factors and victory conditions become increasingly complex and demanding. Economic and socio-technological advancement allows players to build up sufficient resources to prevent the complete routing of one’s military forces and the destruction of one’s labour led supply side. Like a central planner’s utopia, territories are organised by a master planner into productive sections of city-states with defensive fortifications – supported by patrols and early warning beacons along the periphery of ones ‘claimed’ land – and subsequent inner concentric zones or regions of military and economic buildings and units, working to essentially replenish military strength and accumulating wealth
As this massive military-industrial complex model of the warring territories - organised into city states - evolves, even siege weapons and aggressive military opportunism do not help the player to attain the conditions of victory through military conquest of the opponent. Repeated military skirmishes against the enemy result only in the denting of the periphery of the fortifications at great military cost to the oppressor and also, the defensive military units within the walls are advanced enough to thwart any attack onto the society’s core. Similarly, even as the total natural resources in the game universe are exhausted – starting with rare metals followed by other resources like stone and wood – the essential scale of these city states it seems is advanced enough to continue to thrive. This is achieved by establishing a trade based structure to essentially keep the cycle going, eliminating sheer economic dominance as away to achieve victory by making it untenable to stifle the opponent’s economy by limiting access to resources.
It would seem that the warring sides have reached an impasse - a situation where the costs of military skirmishes against the enemy is no longer worth the effort and both city-states are resource rich and have a gained sufficient merit to sustain their society’s resource bill. However, it is important to note that the aversion for military opportunism in this scenario is not because of the fear of retribution, in the sense of mutually assured destruction – like in the heyday of the nuclear arms race between the Americans and Soviets – but in the sense of the lack benefits at the margin. This it would seem to be a unique case of a stalemate – a positive sum solution in an essentially zero-sum environment – all made possible apparently by the development of city-states.
In the upcoming posts I hope to further explore the proposition which postulates that as our societies seem to be hurtling uncontrollably towards doom - catalysed by the gargantuan complexity resulting from population growth and urbanisation and multiplied by the need to feed large populations on apparently limited resources - there is an inherent opportunity. This very complexity in its manifestation in the development of the mega city-state is essentially an antidote to the prediction of gloom and doom and the imminent resource wars of the mid twenty first century. And that if allowed to emerge in their strongest form, the city-states of the twenty first century can actually be an engine for peaceful growth – a positive sum game out of an apparent zero-sum environment.
But before I wind up this post, I must assuage the outrage some hardcore gamers and Age of Empires experts might be feeling right now, by acknowledging that I have taken some liberties in describing the scenario of emergence of these warring super powers. Any Age of Empires aficionado worth his salt will immediately realise that the apparent notion that the supply side of supporting the city-state’s demanding resource bill can be supported through trade alone is incorrect. This pipeline will become very unstable once the natural resources are completely exhausted. This is because trading requires open markets, which are only possible if there are allies.
However, while the Age Of Empires environment is designed to ensure victory only at detrimental costs to the opponent through military appropriation, this need not be the case in the real world. While I am in no way arguing for a purely ‘financial trading everywhere’ scenario in the real world as a parallel to the unfettered open markets in the game, global free trade (adequately regulated) is seen by almost everyone, excepting those from the extreme left and the extreme right, as best way to even deal with rouge nations. But that said, I must also note that even an inherently zero-sum environment like the AOE universe, does offer a benign way to achieve victory arising out of the impasse of warring super city-states – by building of a Wonder. A Wonder in the parlance of a Age of Empires gamers is the manifestation of the heights to which the city-state can grow, a monument so grand that building it poses an immense drain on resources for a society and can therefore be afforded only by the most meritorious and accomplished.
In the universe of Age of Empires, a wonder is usually manifest as a grand monument – a cathedral, a temple or a pyramid – which embodies the meritocracy of the builder society. Anybody who builds one and can retain that merit for an extended period of time is according to the algorithm of the game, worthwhile as being heralded as a winner. It would not be improbable to imagine parallels in the real world, of meritorious traits being heralded as signposts indicating winners – the productivity of the New Yorker, the quality standards of a Munchener, the design aesthetics of a Sao Paulista, the temerity of a Mumbaikar, the dedication of a Shanghaian, the prudence of a Lagosean etc.
With the right scale, it is possible to manage and channel complexity to attain sufficient merit to build the real world equivalents of a Wonder. It will be the essential argument of my further research on this topic that cities are the best expression we have of an economic, social and political unit that is capable of the harnessing the benefits of scale and complexity by tying them together in a tight mutual order to forge a grand future.
I will elaborate some thoughts on the resources (and inspirations), I will be using to further this point of view on the topic of scale and complexity in my upcoming posts. 
Image credit: Screenshot from the interwebs (Google Image Search for 'City Complexity' and 'Age of Empires Screenshots'), used with thanks

Monday, 7 March 2011

SUBMARINE CABLE MAP

An interesting map of the submarine data cables that keep the global networks humming can be found here.



One can zoom in and out of the map just like any other Google map.
When any of the lines indicating the submarine cables are clicked, data pertaining to that cable are displayed. This includes details like: date since when it has been in service (RFS - Ready For Service), the total cable length, the landing points.
An interesting data that it displays is the owners list. Many of the submarine cables seem to be owned by multiple corporations from multiple nationalities. This is understandable - considering the nature of investment required and the distribution of the utility derived.
This is a reality of the way our transnational, global resources are owned and accessed in today's world.
However, if seen in the context of how other scare resource with multiple ownership is increasingly been seen as a trigger for future conflict, the ownership diversity of submarine cables can be alarming.
Take for instance this snippet of information I came across -  40% of human population today gets its fresh water from sources that are 'controlled' by two or more countries (UN Millennium Project). This is being seen as a probable driver of future conflict considering that water is a scarce resource.
Brahma Chellaney's new bookWater: Asia's New Battlegroundis a pioneering study on the topic of water scarcity and the potential of shared water resources to become a trigger for conflict.
Asia is home to many of the world's great rivers and lakes, but its huge population and exploding economic and agricultural demand for water make it the most water-scarce continent on a per capita basis. Many of Asia's water sources cross national boundaries, and as less and less water is available, international tensions will rise. The potential for conflict is further underscored by China's unrivaled global status as the source of transboundary river flows to the largest number of countries, ranging from India and Vietnam to Russia and Kazakhstan; yet a fast-rising China has declined to enter into water-sharing or cooperative treaties with these states, even as it taps the resources of international rivers.
While bandwidth infrastructure cannot be compared on a one-is-to-one basis with a natural resource like water, it will be interesting to study the implications of the multiple ownership of 'bandwidth' infrastructure in the future, considering that 'all' of our information nowadays flows through these cables?
The short answer is - in this case it could be a good thing that there are multiple owners, as it limits the risk of misappropriation by any one group or nation. However, I will be researching more on this topic in the upcoming days and will try to develop more robust scenarios to explore the implications of multiple ownership of bandwidth infrastructure.  
As a corollary to this discussion, it is worthwhile checking out Parag Khanna's TED talk (here) on how infrastructure (oil pipelines, etc) are redefining the map of the World, beyond the boundaries of nation states.
Image Credit: Screenshots from TeleGeography's SubmarineCableMap, used with thanks