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[Book Review] of God, Man and Machines

June 18, 2017 Leave a comment

Book Title: Homo Deus A Brief History of Tomorrow. 

Author: Yuval Noah Harari

Overall Score: 9 (out of 10)

This has to be one of the more thought provoking books I have read in a while, and it boldly tackles a complex and far reaching subject at a most opportune time. Human evolution is something that has fascinated people since Darwin’s seminal work on the origin of then species, perhaps even moreso now with the advent of true A.I. The thought of self learning systems powering an autonomous independent entity can send shivers down the backs of even the most unflappable of people when it becomes real.

Homo Deus is Yuval Noah Harari’s second work on the topic of man’s evolution and he does not disappoint. His previous work, Sapiens, paints a compelling picture of the journey humanity has undertaken to get to this point. This work takes us on the next step of that journey by looking ahead into the future of humanity, assuming the current trajectory remains unchanged, in a way that is equally compelling and enlightening.

According to a central argument in the book, the emergence of Homo deus or ‘divine man’ is the logical next step in human evolution. Homo sapiens (aka thinking man) has progressed far enough on this journey that he is virtually at the cusp of achieving that goal along with mastery of 3 key defining pursuits, i.e: immortality, happiness and divinity. Such a breed of superhuman beings will be sufficiently different from Homo sapiens that the author has chosen to classify them as Homo deus. 

The book traces human belief systems from: belief in divine objects and beings, to belief in society states, and latterly a belief in the individual aka humanism. This is observed to be in step with expanding human communities: from individual family groups and clans to villages, towns and cities; each tier is enabled or limited by man’s ability to source food, security and the prevailing communication technology. There is a certain symmetry in the observed progression from God to man and to machines, as it’s the latter which is fueling the accelerated evolutionary leap to this new species of human being known as Homo deus.

In addition to excellent coverage of realistic humanism and post humanist scenarios, Harari provokes some insightful questions about the next phase of technology enhanced super-humanity and the emerging belief system of Dataism. Dataism describes the current scientific dogma that unites all branches of learning, and which effectively places man in his place as just another data processing system, amongst all other data processing systems, in a world where everything is all about data. He also touches on the inequity that is bound to become even more pronounced when the elites and their robot assistants / overlords decide to do away with the rest of humanity.

Although this is one heck of an interesting book, it doesn’t escape comparison with Harari’s initial masterpiece, which somehow manages to make this work appear less fully-formed and lightweight in relation to Sapiens. It asks more questions, albeit really good ones, than it answers, and somehow contrives to ignore the forest for the trees. By this I mean the relative pace of evolution among different species within an ecosystem. Homo Deus if they ever emerge will have to co-exist with and perhaps dominate other species on the planet, but will themselves be dependent on sustainable wellbeing and balance of the ecosystem in which they find themselves.

In spite of the above, and in conclusion, Homo Deus is a delightful, thought provoking peek at a posssible next phase of human cultural evolution and data driven existence. It is no surprise that it made the list of books reviewed and recommended by none other than Bill Gates in his 5 Good Summer Reads blog post. For this and other reasons stated above, I give it a resounding 9 marks out of 10.

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Fidget spinning and the ‘big brain’ syndrome.

May 29, 2017 Leave a comment

Looking ahead into the future, some forward thinking people might ask what key skills the younger generation should develop in order to survive, thrive and succeed in tomorrow’s world. There is no doubt in their minds that the skills, qualifications and advantages of the present day will no longer suffice in the technology infused world of tomorrow.

 

image4-edit-smFor obvious reasons, any answers to this question should be taken with a pinch of salt, therefore I shan’t even venture into that minefield, but suffice to say that judging from current trends in tech (e.g. biotech, AI, IoT, data analytics, and even Blockchain), the future will be something far more dynamic and fluid than we currently imagine and it’ll challenge even the best of us to compete. However, the ability to adapt to change is probably humanity’s greatest asset, and in this case, that ability resides in mankind’s evolutionary weapon of choice – the brain. It’ll require a big enough brain to recognise, comprehend and grasp the opportunities that present themselves in a post human transition.

I say post human transition because we’ll likely need superhuman abilities to engage effectively with even a mere subset of the predicted changes to come. The enabling technologies in place today only hint at possibilities beyond which we cannot easily envisage. A few weeks ago I came across someone with the big brain outlook, and based on our conversation, I came away with a few key characteristics that can help define the big brain advantage, as follows:

  1. It’s a lonely existence – having a big brain means stepping out on a limb. Even when others are busy fretting about current and future ghosts or bogeymen, they’ll often go out alone into the dark to explore the extent of an unfolding phenomenon.
  2. It takes guts – in order to be able to step out into the unknown, you’ll need a pair of big brass balls to scare any real or perceived demons in the dark. Innovators and pioneers meet this challenge head-on and forge ahead where others fear to tread.
  3. An eclectic worldview is essential – the ability to appreciate the big picture in all its variety, diversity and pervasive interconnectedness is crucial to this mindset. Look for it in those with atypical backgrounds and experiences, e.g. that well-travelled outlier in a homogenous group.

So what has this go to do with the humble, if irritating fidget spinner? Well a fidget spinner requires some manual dexterity as well as sensory input and feedback, and it apparently helps those with certain forms of attention deficit disorders, but it has gone viral and become a fad with school age kids (& some adults) everywhere.

Bipedal locomotion, opposing thumb digits and accompanying manual dexterity are adaptions that contributed to the evolution of ‘big brained’ Homo sapiens, aka thinking man. This evolutionary advantage led to the dominance of human beings on earth. In much the same light, it could be argued that those heads-down, hunch-shouldered, smartphone-wielding people you find everywhere these days are merely taking human cultural evolution to the next level by mastering necessary digital dexterity and information processing skills required to gain that digital advantage. So next time you see a fidget-spinning, smartphone-messaging kid, be rest assured this is a fine specimen of the next phase in human evolution – Lord help us all!

Copyright, Blockchain, Technology and the State of Digital Piracy

January 15, 2017 Leave a comment
The next installment of one of my favourite conferences on copyright and technology is right around the corner, on January 24th in NYC, and as usual it promises some interesting: debate, controversy and hot-off-the-press insights into the murky world of copyright business, technology, and legislation. Plus, this year, it also features a panel on the game changing technology of blockchain and its myriad disruptive applications across entire industries, including copyright and the creative industries.

Thankfully, the inclusion of this panel session recognises the never-ending role of new and innovative technologies in shaping the evolution of Copyright. Ever since that first mass copy technology (i.e. the printing press) raised questions of rights ownership, and due recompense for works of the mind, new technologies for replicating and sharing creative content have driven the wheel of evolution in this area. Attendees will doubtless benefit from the insight and expertise of this panel of speakers as well as moderator and Program Chair, Bill Rosenblatt, who questioned (in a recent blog post), the practicality, relevance and usefulness of blockchain in a B2C context for copyright. You are in for a treat.

This is a very exciting period of wholesale digital transformation, and as I mentioned once or twice in previous articles and blog-posts, the game is only just beginning for potential applications of: blockchain, crypto currencies, smart licences and sundry trust mechanisms in the digital domain. In an age of ubiquitous content and digital access, the focus of copyright is rightfully shifting away from copying and moving towards the actual usage of digital content, which brings added complexity to an already complex and subjective topic. It is far too early to tell if blockchain can provide a comprehensive answer to this challenge.

The Copyright and Technology conference series have never failed to provide some thought-provoking insights and debates driven by expert speakers across multiple industries. In fact, I reconnected recently with a couple of previous speakers: Dominic Young and Chris Elkins, who are both still pretty active, informed and involved in the copyright and technology agenda. Dominic, ex-CEO of the UK’s Digital Catapault, is currently working on a hush hush project that will potentially transform the B2C transaction space. Chris is co-founder Muso, a digital anti-piracy organisation which has successfully secured additional funding to expand its global footprint with innovative approaches to anti-piracy. For example, if you ever wondered which countries are most active in media piracy, then look no further than Muso’s big data based state of digital piracy reports. Don’t say I never tell you anything.

In any case, I look forward to hearing attendees impressions on the Copyright and Technology 2017 conference, which I’m unable to attend / participate this timme unfortunately. In the meantime, I’ll continue to spend my spare time, or whatever brain capacity I have left, with pro-bono activities that allow me to: meet, mentor / coach and advise some amazing startups on the dynamic intersection of IP, business and technology. More on that in another post.

Intellectual Property for Start-Ups

October 28, 2016 Leave a comment

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to participate, as chair & speaker, at a BCS Entrepreneurs event discussing the role and value of Intellectual Property for start-ups and entrepreneurs. As you might imagine this was a well attended event with so many different questions foremost on the minds of various attendees.

Given the focus on my favourite topics of IP and entrepreneurship, it didn’t take much persuasion for me to sign-up and chair the event. Furthermore, I was in the company of two legal experts on: EU IP law (Jonathan Exell, from William Powells) and employment law (Bob Fahy, from Veale Wasbrough Vizards) respectively. Also the attendees were certainly not shy to engage and they took some delight in systematically dissecting the trickier aspects of entrepreneurship and the start-up vs. IP challenge in a changing landscape. 

As introduction and kickoff, I provided a quick overview of some of those key challenges facing startups with respect to IP. This was mainly based on a previous post and article I’d written and published about this same topic. 

The first speaker followed through with a thorough recap of the legal position on IP particularly with regard to the EU and Brexit. Key message: it’ll likely be business as usual for IP in post Brexit UK, at least in the near term. Also, it is highly unlikely that the UK will deviate too radically from the increasingly aligned position on IP  which most of the world enjoy today.

The second legal perspective provided some insights on key challenges and opportunities facing anyone trying to manage the IP risks and issues associated with employees, disgruntled or otherwise. Here the lines become somewhat blurred between contract vs. employment vs. IP laws. It was interesting to observe the number of questions relating to how founders should approach the challenge of establishing who has what IP (and / or portions thereof) when their start-up fails, flounders, or even flourishes!

To say this event was informative and enlightening would be an understatement because the second part of the seminar consisted of 1-to-1 mentorship sessions, with experienced BCS mentors exploring attendees individual circumstances in order to provide specific guidance based on the topic at hand. Pure value delivered, if you ask me. As an exercise in giving back, I can think of no better way to spend an evening than by learning, interacting and exploring various start-up IP challenges with enthusiastic entrepreneurs, mentors and experts from within and outside of the BCS.

One thing I love about my work is how it affords me unfettered opportunity to give back, by providing dedicated time (and a measurable objective) to undertake pro bono activities, such as this one, which is aimed at helping others in need of expertise or guidance for projects, worthy causes or personal development. Pure Ohana!

The Tech Start-Up’s IP Dilemma

September 4, 2016 Leave a comment
When it comes to tech entrepreneurship, a good Intellectual Property (IP) strategy will often play a critical role in the difference between unbridled success versus failure-inducing infringement lawsuits. How should technology entrepreneurs and start-ups approach the difficult task of balancing IP protection vs. commercialization considerations in the dynamic, financial and geo-political landscape of today?

In the face of recent global financial meltdowns, migrant refugee crises, global terrorism and regional upheavals (e.g. BREXIT), things may become exponentially more complicated. In terms of IP, the key question for many high-growth start-ups is how to negotiate the daunting landscape of protocol, jurisdiction and regulatory compliance requirements for each new market that they penetrate.

3 key factors, in my opinion, need to be taken into consideration when attempting to address these particular challenges as follows:

Pay to play – The digital world has ushered in a shift from transactions to a more interaction based economy. According to Constellation Research Principal, Andy Mulholland, three distinct types of time-zone based interactions can be recognized in this new environment. They comprise of: reflex interactions (e.g. autonomous machine to machine interactions); service based interactions (i.e. multiple, coordinated services interacting to deliver value to customers / subscribers / end-users); and finally, cognitive interactions (delivering enhanced value as part of a ‘smart’ system and ecosystem).

Changing of the Guard – IP is a moveable feast, and sooner or later any proponent of “free-to-use” IP soon become vigorous advocates of IP protection once they start producing their own. Nations that were once net consumers of IP, with scant regard for anti-piracy measures, will often become rabid defenders of international IP laws when they start producing more IP than they consume. The same applies to start-ups who initially think nothing of appropriating other people’s IP in other to create or enhance their own products / services, but then go on to spend oodles of funding money with top IP lawyers to protect or defend their IP as they mature.

Caring, sharing, gig economy – The last point is very much about the real cost of freedom and flexibility. The so called “Gig economy”, which offers short term roles for hordes of contingent workers (aka ‘micro entrepreneurs’), has been popularised by the likes of Uber, Airbnb and Deliveroo, because they promise a greater degree of freedom and flexibility than traditional employer / employees models. The new gig economy players typically provide a platform for exchanging goods and services, but sometimes this can verge on the traditional ’employee’  domain, (e.g. wearing uniforms with the platform providers logo), instead of an independent provider. This blurring of lines could be interpreted by many as an attempt by platform operators to have their cake and eat it, and this has contributed to the recent spate of high profile law suites and demonstrations by irate contingent workers. Such disruptive business practices bring to mind the threat posed to traditional content industries by file sharing platforms such as: Naptster, Grokster, Pirate Bay and Megaupload, who all got sued to smithereens. The sad thing is that such repercussions, if unchecked, can serve to dampen the innovative vigour of said ‘gig economy’ platform operators. A middle ground must be found where it will be possible to explore the frontiers of the new gig economy without trampling over the rights of its participants. The promise of freedom and flexibility alone may not be worth the pixels through which it is displayed.

In conclusion, when it comes to startup entrepreneurship in today’s world, it takes a certain level of awareness to negotiate the myriad challenges facing new innovative / disruptive entrants to most markets. One of the key criteria for success, (in addition to having the right ideas, resources, team and opportunity / timing), is the presence of a good strategy for intellectual property and how it can be employed to the benefit of the organisation. It is no accident that California USA, with its high concentration of IP based industries, is the 6th largest economy in the world, therefore it goes without saying how important it is for startups to identify and protect any IP assets, right from the start.

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Disclosure: The above post is derived from a soon-to-be-published article in the next edition of BCS Digital Leaders newsletter. Also the topic of start ups and IP will be the focus of the next BCS Entrepreneurs speed mentoring event which I’ll be chairing in the next few weeks.

And while I was away…

September 1, 2016 Leave a comment
My last post, about Blockchain, Bitcoins and Trust Machines, must have pulled a Rip Van Winkle stunt on me because I just blinked and here I am, almost 5 months later and what’s more, the world seems to have gone a little bonkers.
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The BREXIT vote happened (yes it did), and The Donald may well be on his way to the Whitehouse (heaven help us all). On the tech front, AI is making a strong play for headlines post “big data” and IoT trends of last year, and Apple got hit by a hefty 13BN tax bill by the EU, while Mark Zuckerberg got downright local in Lagos, Nigeria. However, it was not all bad news because the Rio Olympics seemingly surpassed all expectations (at least for the Brits), and apparently went very well – Zika or no.
In any case, sporadic flashes of hazy memory seem to indicate I may have been extremely busy, especially judging by my last Salesforce blog post (something about turning experts into trusted advisors). If so, that may well account for the memory lapse – I’ll just have to be more careful next time.
That said, it’s nice to post again on this blog and I look forward to sharing more thoughts on key topics of interest, such as my next post which will be about IP and tech startups, so watch this space…

Block Bits and Chain Coins: The Trust Machine Jigsaw

April 1, 2016 3 comments

The topic of Bitcoin, and other cyber currencies, as well as the underlying Blockchain technology is still top of mind for various industries, with frequent: events, blog posts, articles and sundry news items firmly focused on them.  I have also contributed to the deluge with a recently published article in the BCS ITNow magazine, as well as a forthcoming event on the “darker side of Internet technology”, but more on that later.

Last week I attended a BCS London Central event about Bitcoin technology “that could change the world”, featuring Simon Taylor, VP Entrepreneurial Partnerships at Barclays bank. As you might imagine, banks and other financial institutions are at the cross-hairs of any impending / potential disruption by Bitcoin and its Blockchain technology. Given the history of other similar disruptions in other industries, many financial institutions have been quick jump into the ring in order to figure out the best way to take advantage of the new challenge / opportunity rather than just sit back or ignore it.

To this end, Simon did a great job shedding some light on key initiatives by members of the financial services, (including banks and Barclays in particular), on the topic of Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies. My top take-aways from the event include:

  1. Building Blocks – Bitcoin is great, but platforms like Ethereum have really made Blockchain relevant for organisations to build their own applications – i.e. by providing the Lego building blocks for creating useful applications for the banks of tomorrow.
  2. FUD still rules – Opinions differ and people argue as to just what is Blockchain. Is it just the underlying technology used for Bitcoin, or does it include other incarnations and applications of similar mechanisms? A lot of confusion is being caused by misconceptions around Blockchain – e.g. “people keep coming up with Blockchain ‘solutions’ for just about anything”. However, if you do use Bitcoin based solutions, you must beware of implications for data protection, Safe Harbour and industry regulations.
  3. Using a hammer to crack a nut – Simon questioned whether it was really necessary to put up with the immense overhead required for permission-less ‘proof of work’ systems such as Bitcoin, when the faster permissioned versions could be just as effective, albeit with a certain degree less end-to-end security, integrity and non-repudiation capability in comparison to Bitcoin.
  4. Bitcoin keys can also be lost or stolen – Blockchain does not provide a solution for key management, so How can this be mitigated. This could be a potential role for trusted intermediaries, such as banks.
  5. Q&A: How can other organisations (e.g. NHS) successfully leverage such tech? – Simon’s advice to the NHS Director in the audience was to get educated on the topic and then experiment like mad. Barclays does this by first creating an experiment script or hypothesis then outsourcing the work to local / friendly start-ups for rapid turnaround. The resulting outcome is then studied and pulled apart by multi-disciplinary experts from Barclays (e.g. compliance / risk / security teams) before a recommendation is made. Most other industries can follow this model.

Overall, I thought this was a good event which was well attended by a very engaged 100 strong audience. The chosen topic and focus also made a perfect setup for the aforementioned BCS “Darkside” event which is scheduled to take place on 26th April, and features some excellent speakers and their perspectives on the seamier sides and uses of Bitcoin and Blockchain technology. Don’t miss it!