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Prepare for Magic

May 9, 2012

We can – we should – prepare ourselves for magic. Here’s why. Here’s the magic. Then, here’s how.

It’s in the numbers:

As we know, Moore’s Law reported and predicted, with good accuracy; in 1965; that the number of transistors on a chip doubles every two years. Many other computing technologies and quantities follow a similar law. That’s a factor of over 30 million to 2015.

Story: This matches my own computing experience well enough. My 1984 Sanyo MBC555 has 640K of RAM; my 2010 Dell 9200 has 4 GB – (both cost around £1000). This is a RAM scale factor of around 6,000 over 28 years. Moore suggests a factor of 16,000 over this period. Close, on a log scale – around 3 years off.

It’s in the experience:

Hegel noted that a quantitative change over time can become a change in quality. C:\ to GUI; Sputnik 1 to communications satellite; Galileo (telescope) to Hubble (telescope). These are obviously not Hegel’s examples – he died in 1831.

Combine Moore’s Law with Hegel’s Law and we see that we are getting qualitative change from straight technological advance.

Yes, but where does the magic come from?

Again, it’s in the experience.:

Clarke – Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Magic is certainly qualitatively different from everyday experience, whether it’s the playing card chosen secretly by me being identified correctly by the magician or the iPhone 4S that, on a good day for Siri and the user, and if Siri and user are both in a tolerant mood, with a good internet connection and no head cold, can pass a gentle version of the Turing test (it responds like a person so it may be a person).

Moore, Hegel, Clarke: magic. We need to be preparing for magic.

What magic?

What will the world be like? We know quite a lot.

The world is moving towards everything everyone everywhere everywhen.

Everything? First, everything existing as bits: data, becoming information, becoming knowledge, becoming judgement, becoming intelligence, becoming wisdom, becoming – whatever, for you, lies beyond wisdom. Transcendence? Whatever. This progression is already part of our evolving experience and expectation.

Example: From ‘Here’s the train timetable, make of it what you will’ to ‘You are an eight minute walk from the station, this is the route, your train home goes from Platform 6 at 1750 and it’s on time and your seat is A24 and you can get a meal at your table’. You’ll have your own examples.

This progression, this quest, is harder than the Moore’s Law progression; much harder. But Moore’s Law is a steady supporter. So is our growing smarts, ‘our’ now meaning us and the technology working together.

Example: We used to have to specify every process, every line of code. Now, increasingly, we can say to the system ‘Here’s roughly what we want, now go play, go learn, and come back when you’ve cracked it. And let us know about any other good ideas you spot while you’re playing and learning’.

The synergies are kicking in. It is increasingly clear that intelligence requires knowledge as well as computing power. And the knowledge is becoming more available, in part because more of it is being produced already digital / taggable / searchable. But the next level will always be hard.

I won’t say much about everything as atoms. 3D printing moves us along the road to the everything of atoms, perhaps connected by flows of bits. We may find we can do more with plastic than we currently realise. We are learning to3D print other materials.

Everyone? Yes, everyone, whether as source – “Anyone out there know how I can…?” or as audience “You may enjoy this…” or as collaborator – “If you do this bit and I do that bit and we put them together like this…”, even for a moment. Everyone, that is, whom we can find, or who can find us: and everyone who wants to. Finding people gets easier. We’re maybe not quite as good yet at permissions management. But we will learn.

Everywhere? Everywhere we and those we allow to have power over us want!

Everywhen? (A more common word is ‘always’, but I wanted to keep the ‘every’ riff going.) Ditto as for ‘everywhere’ above.

Everything everyone everywhere everywhen needs a filter and a pause control and a volume control and (although less and less likely by the month) maybe even an off switch.

The rest is detail. Fascinating detail; but detail.


Jump in.

Use the new stuff – a new app isn’t a marriage, it’s a flirt, or, if you really get on, a fling.

Ready fire aim; or just fire, and see what happens. Be critical afterwards, not before.

Kids learn faster than we do because they play more. Be a kid. Dignity isn’t so important. Learning is.

Find good sources of advice and information, follow them ‘til they become less good, then ditch them for better. There’s always someone better. It may, in time, be you.

Ask what will happen, what will become possible when, not if. Examples. Write your own. Concentrate on what you want. What will happen, what will life be like, when:

  • Everything: My computer knows what I’ll need next – not what my cookies think I should want next – and with the odd nice surprise – and has them waiting for me – and doesn’t get upset, but rather learns, when it’s wrong. And when I never have to do exactly the same thing more than once ever again?
  • Everyone: I can readily find and contact the very best person for me to talk to about x. Or their avatar?
  • Everywhere: I don’t have to decide which device with which information to take where to do what, but rather My One™ does and knows all I need – a thinking Dropbox for my life?
  • Everywhen I want!?

Not forgetting filter, pause control, volume control. OK, no off switch.

Then, maybe, when you’ve predicted what will come and decided what you want, seek it. It may already be out there. Your future is sometimes already someone’s present.

Story: Several years ago, cluttered by and guilty about unused back-up devices, I thought it must be possible to do this online. So I searched for ‘online backup’; found several services; chose one; used it; migrated to a cheaper one a couple of times – currently, Carbonite, as long as they stay good and cheap. Oh, and bought a 2TB hard drive – full circle!)

If it’s not already out there, and you’ve a mind to, invent the magic.


Magic is not spoilt by knowledge

Just because you understand some of it, the movement of which it is a part, its technologies, doesn’t stop it being magic. Magic is how you feel about it. My MBC555 was magic. It made new and amazing things possible. It changed my world. It improved my world. So will my iPad 5.

And anyway, where do you want to be – in the front row of the stalls gasping in amazement, or up on stage being amazing? I recommend some of both.

At least we know the broad outlines within which the future will happen. The numbers rise; quantitative change becomes qualitative; magic happens; and we move towards everything everyone everywhere everywhen.


Of course, the genetic engineering / synthetic biology magics may not fall within this framework at all. And we have to not wreck everything in the process of advance. We may all go down together in the best toyshop ever. We need to make the magic work for much bigger goals than an iPad 5. Real magic means doing the right things, not doing the wrong things better. We’re probably smart enough. Are we brave enough?

More about everything everyone everywhere everywhen
Then, what does this mean for higher education?

One Comment
  1. Yeah. More on doing the right thing better, please. Plus there’s access for all, because otherwise you have a 2 tier society/world (which, actually, we do right now) and the exponential gains made by tier 1 is inaccessible by tier 2, and that’s not sustainable or healthy. I know tech gets cheaper and that’s a big part of the picture – it kind of self corrects – but we need to keep both eyes firmly on that ball, I think, because otherwise, to paraphrase you, he who dies with the most/best toys still dies.
    Not to rain on your utopian parade (too much). It’s fine fine stuff, and as ever you pull it together concisely and clearly.
    Interesting times? That’d be a ‘hell yes’.

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