Monday, November 28, 2011

Technology of the Year

Loads of brilliant technologies went mainstream this year. Some new technologies were created but I don't know enough about any of them to make claims for their future. I'm going to describe what I think these old but newly well known technologies mean in reference to the world when my new daughter is 18 in 2030.

Learning by reading
Watson came along from IBM and answered quiz questions really well. Siri did something similar with peoples requests.

This might not seem like a big deal. Not many of us make a living answering quiz questions. But how many of us have jobs that involve finding the right page based on some search and parsing out the right bit of text? A surprising amount of medicine, lawyering, general office power point monkeying involves this. What happens when a cockroach knows everything? Watson is the answer to that as that is about the actual intelligence level it has. What happens when in 2030 the cockroach is a thousand times smarter? I have no idea.

Depressingly most of these systems seem to be owned by big companies like apple, Google and IBM. Most of the data used and the tools that analyse it are open source. It will be a really cool project when someone makes an opensource wikipedia based answering bot.

"if, in like manner, the shuttle would weave and the plectrum touch the lyre without a hand to guide them, chief workmen would not want servants, nor masters slaves." Aristotle wrote in Politics which says that smarter machines will free us from servitude. So far this has been the case but will that continue?.

Driverless cars

Will my daughter ever drive for non fun reasons? People will always drive the same way people still ride horses. Just now they do it for fun rather than transport. Two trends are making it less likely that my daughter will ever have a drivers licence. The increasing sophistication of driverless cars and our decreasing acceptance of the idiocy of youth.

If Ferris Bueller had a day off now, would he spend it on Facebook? Because cars are relatively more expensive and relatively less exciting teenagers are less inclined to drive now. Facebook and youtube provide entertainment for free so you are less inclined to work thousands of hours so you can afford a mildly entertaining car. Cars are now only mildly entertaining as safety nazis have turned them all into a homogenous look that cannot even be modded easily. If you cannot put a spoiler and underlights on your Clio your just not going to look cool as a 17 year old.

Combined with cars being less attractive to teenagers there is increasing control placed over them. New drink drive limits for learners have been imposed here. I have heard talk of curfews for young drivers. We are less inclined to accept the god given right to load a car with 7 of their mates and wrap it around a tree at 4 in the morning. In 2030 well have so many constraints on teenagers to prevent them killing themselves as to remove much of the attraction from driving.

The technology element of this is the driverless car

Hanson wrote
So a huge upcoming policy question is: when will what big cities manage to coordinate to change road law to achieve these huge auto-auto economic gains? Thirty years from now we may look back and lament that big city politics was so broken that no big cities could manage it. Or perhaps history will celebrate how the first big city to do it dramatically increased its importance on the world scene

Cowen said
The typical American spends an average of roughly 100 hours a year in traffic; imagine using that time in better ways — by working or just having fun. The irksome burden of commuting might be lessened considerably. Furthermore, computer-driven cars could allow for tighter packing of vehicles on the road, which would speed traffic times and allow a given road or city to handle more cars

These technologies will come in gradually drive train technology, lane assist, parking assist, crash avoidance are all present in next years s-class Mercedes. Probably legal hangups will delay driverless cars. If I was to guess it will be the old that get them pushed through. The old are increasing in numbers and will continue to vote. The baby boomers won't accept the loss of independence that goes with not being able to drive currently. Legal changes to allow driverless cars could be a vote winner. I'm willing to bet that by 2030 a combination of our scardy-cat nature about risk, the grey vote and improved technology will mean that my daughter may never have to drive.

Solar Power

The exponential improvement in solar power became news this year.
Averaged over 30 years, the trend is for an annual 7 percent reduction in the dollars per watt of solar photovoltaic cells...10 years later, in 2030, solar electricity is likely to cost half what coal electricity does today

This article started a great big argument about why solar is not replacing fracking and such. Including why environmentalists are still worried about co2. What will happen in 2030? I dont think we'll be using enough less energy to prevent climate change that way. I think well still be using fossil fuels to fly planes. New electricity generation methods take decades to become part of the grid, but I am still optimistic about solar.

Education has not changed much in a long time. This is partly due to Baumol's cost disease where a teacher now can only teach the same number of kids as one in 1900. Since that time manufacturing jobs can produce vastly more than they used to. But education is one of those human centric industries that has not changed much.

Since videos came out it has been possible to watch lectures at home. Just giving kids computers does not improve education. If you look at the list here of the best educational strategies Tutorial instruction, Reinforcement, Corrective feedback, Cues and explanation are now part of online educational programs.

Stanford this year ran three computer courses where anyone can sign up for free, get homework graded by computer and do exams at the end. This is a graduate level course in one of the worlds best universities for free. The Khan academy has been around for a while but this year it moved from just a list of videos to include problems. The site is now using machine learning and gamification techniques to improve these problems and thus student learning. They are also using statistical tests to improve the website layout and which version of a explanation gets used. These computer assisted techniques are even being used by humans to get better at Jeopardy as the video below describes.

Interestingly the same guys who got learning by reading and driverless cars to their current state are also important in these changes to education Sebastian Thrun, Andrew Ng and Peter Norvig.
This year technologies became mainstream that finally turn computers into the amazing educational tools they have always promised to be.

How did these areas change from when I was born till I was 18?

Cars became safer and drink driving became mildly uncool. The main change here was removing lead from petrol though. The recent drop in crime and increase in IQ may be largely due to removal of leaded petrol. I think driverless cars are important but not as important as this.

Power generation changed a bit, Chernobyl made nuclear uncool but it was probably never economical anyway.

Education did not change much. I did example questions from the year I was born to practice for the leaving cert. Corporal punishment still existed in my time but mainly for nostalgia rather than because they got true joy battering children. I was born after the education system demilitarized. I predict education will change more in my daughters childhood than mine.

Computers did not really visibly exist for people when I was born. By the time I was 18 it was obvious they were going to change the world even if they had not fully done that yet. I think the change from no computers to some was bigger than useful computers to really useful ones that I predict will happen.

Here is the prediction in 2030 for the technologies that became public this year. Many of the cars will be driverless. The world will get a most of its new generational electrical capacity from solar. Education has already changed massively this year just people have not realised it yet. We will each have an assistant that knows everything. I don't know how that will effect employment, my guess is she will end up working in a job that does not exist at the moment.

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