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Bay Area Future Salon @ TechShop San Francisco

April 30, 2013

trillionsbookCrosspost via Bay Area Future Salon Leader Mark Finnern (@finnern). (SF Bay Area locals can get Bay Area Future Salon event notices here):

At 6pm on Tues April 9th 2013, at TechShop San Francisco, we hosted Mickey McManus (@mickeyymcmanus), author of the thrilling new book Trillions: Thriving in the Emerging Information Ecology, 2012. Check it out for more on future of pervasive computing, with trillions of connected devices coming.

To get the conversation started I sent three questions to Mickey.
He even added a fourth, regarding action items for business. Enjoy them below:


1) You mentioned a connection/communication problem/layer that Nature has solved, that we humans haven’t. Which one?

I think the most fundamental one is that at some point Life agreed on one basic currency to not only store information but also move it around and exchange value. Today we have over 50 ways to move basic information and no common container to store meaning beyond the basic bit, byte, and packet.  But even moving info misses the bigger solution that Nature found. DNA in the form of genes is a liquid currency that drives economic value. We take it for granted that we can use human genes inserted into goats to make new transgenic drugs. Imagine how sad (or non-existent) life would be if each organism had it’s own currency. We would have had no Cambrian Explosion, we wouldn’t have you or your family or friends. Life would be a small set of one off experiments. Life also uses this common currency as a sort of Natural archive. The ocean and all the organisms in it and on the planet are Life’s “backup drive.” Nature hit on the idea of promiscuous peer-to-peer replication and storage, and now you couldn’t get rid of the gene for Blue eyes no matter how hard you tried.

2) Is there any chance for privacy in a world of a trillion connected smart nodes?

I think like any powerful technology we’ll come to an uneasy peace with connectivity, privacy, trust, and security issues. It won’t be pretty but we cope with garbage because we value the products our industrial processes create and try to minimize waste. We are usually only a few feet away from 120 to 240 volts of alternating current and somehow we don’t electrocute ourselves most days, even when we have nice shiny metal objects in our hands that would fit perfectly into those little slots. We’ll probably have a pretty bad transparency outbreak or two and policy and cultural acceptance will swing from one extreme to the other, but humans are good at doing the right thing once they’ve tried everything else.

Will we lose some privacy? Yes. Before we had indoor plumbing we didn’t have quite as much privacy, but that was a fairly recent shift (my home is my castle is not that old a concept). Will we be “naked?” Probably, like we were for most of prehistoric times. Will we develop new social norms to hide that nakedness? Probably. It’s interesting to consider the challenges of trying to keep something private when everything is connected and can sense what’s going on. In World War 2 the axis and allies faced this challenge and pulled together a bunch of really smart mathematicians (and some magicians) to try to break through the enemy’s veil (Bletchley Park and cryptographers), but they also had some really smart minds thinking about hiding us back into the noise (those magicians I talked about who created fake inflatable tanks and towns and a host of ways to misdirect and confuse the enemy). In the age of Trillions, we won’t need Bletchley Park and a bunch of boffins. Likely we’ll all have Bletchley Park in our pockets.

Today we think we have some bit of privacy, but it’s largely an illusion. Consider the recent paper that Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye and team just published about the identity of cell phone users, and you get a hint at what is already lost.  That being said, we can’t just expect things to turn out well. We’ll need to work to secure private information (and the property rights of those who own their information) through end-to-end encryption.

3) What surprised you when researching your book?

I guess the brittleness and shortsightedness of our current computing infrastructure. A number of the web links that we found as references to critical research in the early stages of our writing were dead and unreachable by the time we got to the final manuscript. Somehow we have fooled ourselves into thinking that efforts like the Internet Archive, or what Google or Amazon do with their cloud services will protect us from data loss. “We’ll just make extra copies!” they say. Not realizing that while Google may have redundancy, there aren’t any spare copies of Google around. I suspect our grandchildren will be very proud that we have many copies of those cat videos but not one existing copy of some critical research findings. On the positive side, the patterns in Nature that have to do with process, like my favorite, “Generativity,” are inspiring and thought provoking.

4) What can businesses do to prepare for this coming world of massive connectivity and big data?

A. I think there will be an “Internet of Things” bubble, like any new paradigm there are moments of irrational exuberance. But bubbles aren’t always bad. They fertilize the foothills of the next mountain. If I were a company I’d learn the ways to make it through the bubble. Bubbles are an awful lot like Vegas. Only two kinds of people make it through a casino with more money than when they came in. The lucky (we can’t really help them), and the smart (the card counters). We wrote Trillions for the card counters, those who want to learn the rules of the game.

B. Make a list of ten companies that make things that you’ve never thought of partnering with before. Now imagine what would happen if you all sorts of exhaust data that today you throw away and exhaust data that those other companies throw away and decide instead to keep it and remix it. What new forms of value could bubble up out of the trillions-commerce that is on its way?  Consider what you could do with those strange bedfellows today to get a head start.

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 10, 2013 4:36 pm

    Hello John,
    On the first question of the “connection/communication problem/layer that Nature has solved, that we haven’t” I suspect that before Nature came up with DNA, in the very early days, Nature also struggled with as many as 50 different ways to solve the common currency problem before it settled on DNA. In that sense, this book and discussion is a continuation of Nature’s effort to solve a higher-level version of the same problem. We are just Nature continuing to permeate the niche of the fifth dimension.

    On your answer to the third question, dealing with lost data, Nature has struggled with that one too. It had perfectly good DNA information for a T. Rex, but somehow lost it. Oh well. Whatever it made once, it can make again, if there is an advantage. Humanity looses information all the time, even research information. A recent example could be the research results on how to effectively mummify a Sun God. The Egyptians didn’t do a good job of recording their techniques.
    Scientists of all stripes take an abundance of research insights and discoveries with them when they die, no matter how much they have already published. Big Data looses data all the time simply because it is time sensitive. Also, as researchers, often times as we discover new patterns in systems, we realize that much of our previous data and even published research results are of little value now that our understanding and techniques have evolved.

    Evolution places a time sensitivity on our data and information. We are stuck with that.
    Sounds like a good book to explore.

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