Ion Drives, Asteroid Mining and Artificial Intelligence – Science Fiction or Reality?

Sometimes we don’t realise how far we have really come in terms of technology. For example last year we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the first ever text message to a mobile phone (incidentally the message was “Merry Christmas”). Now we take text messages for granted in our personal and business lives, and text messaging as a technology is often seen as a technology nearing the end of its useful life. We’ve also seen the emergence of Twitter in a relatively short period to the point that it is now playing a role in crime fighting, and also being used extensively by public figures including The Pope!

A hundred years ago the mobile phone, let alone text messaging, would not have been dreamed of –  and now it is very much a part of our everyday life. It is interesting to speculate about what what we dream today becoming everyday life tomorrow. Science fiction writers do it all the time!

We live in a truly amazing time!

Much of what used to be thought of as science fiction has actually happened – but a lot of it is still to take place. In the past, the ideas and inspiration about what the future would look like came mostly from science fiction writers like Jules Verne, HG Wells, Mary Shelley, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, George Orwell, E.E.’Doc’ Smith, Larry Niven and Robert Heinlein to name a few. They predicted or envisaged the following advances many decades or even a century before technology was capable of producing them:

  • Space Travel
  • Satellites
  • The Internet
  • Fax Machines
  • Nano Technology
  • Ubiquitous Video Communication
  • Mass Surveillance Systems
  • Supercomputers
  • Subsea Habitats and Exploration
  • Stealth Technology
  • Personal Area Networks
  • Cloud Computing

However, many predictions such as robots and artificial intelligence still have some way to go before they can match Asimov’s portrayal of robots or come anywhere even needing the 3 Laws of Robotics*, but we have recently seen advances that will potentially allow an AI to sit an entrance exam to Tokyo University.

Establishing environments or even computing in hostile conditions such as at high altitudes like the ALMA Observatory in the Andes  is still a challenge but we are making progress. After our first forays to the Moon in the 60s and 70s, even landing a spacecraft on the Moon or Mars is still a major achievement. More ambitious ideas like asteroid and planet mining (as seen at the core of movies like Alien) is barely a reality but getting closer with the successful launch and return of the spacecraft Hayabusa, as is the use of ‘ion drives’ (used in the same craft) as popularised in many novels as the propulsion mechanism that would take us to the stars.

In the popular 60s TV Series “Lost in Space” Professor Robinson used a chemical fuelled Jet-Pack to explore the terrain of the planets the Jupiter 2 became stranded on. The technology has now advanced to the level that for just on US$300 you can hire a water powered jet-pack for two 20 minute flights over water!

Many science fiction predictions revolve around technology creating an apocalypse as popularised in TV shows, games and movies such as Terra Nova (the earth becomes an oxygen starved polluted wasteland), The Walking Dead/Shaun of the Dead/28 Days (a virus creates zombies or crazed killers),  Terminator (machines create machines and take over the planet exterminating humans for the greater good), or DEFCON (a game where the mission is to survive a global thermonuclear war while decimating the enemy).

Fujitsu’s vision however is to create a world enabled by technology, and made better by technology – we call this the Human Centric Intelligent Society. Below are some examples of technologies that are hopefully changing the world for the better.

Future Predictions and Disruptions

A disruptive technology is a new technological product or service that eventually overturns the existing dominant technology, product or business model in the market. Disruptive technologies cause a change or paradigm shift in business practices, markets, commerce and consumer lives. To be disruptive, the technological change needs to create new markets or reach new customers. It is not deemed an ‘innovation’ if the technology change results in simply selling more products to current customers or replaces current products.

Throughout this post we have described many ways in which technology will cause major disruptions, however there are four (at least) that will have a very significant impact on or change the way we work and live. These revolve around manufacturing, education, human bionics, and predicting human behaviour

Additive Manufacturing (3D Printing)

In his space opera ’The Great North Road’, Peter. F Hamilton envisages a future where among other things, human outposts on remote planets ‘microfacture’ or ‘print’ their  materiel from ‘raw’, creating on-demand housing, building materials, work implements like shovels, clothing and the like, to meet their immediate needs. He has taken the developing ‘3D Printing’ technology to an extreme, but based on current trends it will probably happen earlier than 2140.

‘3D Printing’ or additive manufacturing is an alternative to traditional manufacturing techniques. Instead of casting, moulding or machining products, additive manufacturing constructs them precisely layer by layer using techniques adapted from printing and chip manufacturing. Originally used solely for low cost prototyping of new products, these systems have become much cheaper, more capable, more widespread and are enabling new products whose customisation or novel physical properties would be unaffordable or impossible with traditional techniques. Cheap systems such as consumer level 3D printers are already available for less than US$1000. This could see households buying product designs online (clothing, shoes, car parts, etc.) and printing them from home, or industrial facilities printing their own spare parts as needed rather than stockpiling them[i].

Disruption will occur as the technology develops and becomes even more pervasive. Additive manufacturing will offer alternative business models to those built on scale, uniformity and low labour costs. This ‘consumerisation of consumption through microfacturing’ has the added benefit of being close to the market, combining with innovative customised design thus potentially changing the manufacturing playing field back in favour of the more advanced economies, or creating a more even footing with emerging economy manufacturing.

The Demise of the Formal Degree

As discussed elsewhere in Technology Perspectives, the workplace and the way we work is changing dramatically due to the rise of access to high speed networks, pervasiveness of mobile devices, and availability of human resources for many jobs anywhere at any time.

These trends are having a profound influence on the type of work we do as well. When this author commenced work in the IT industry in 1979 the jobs below didn’t exist at all, now they are common:

  • Blogger
  • Call centre worker
  • Chief Technology Officer
  • Chief Digital Officer
  • Sustainability manager
  • Knowledge Worker
  • Teleworker
  • E-Lancer
  • Web Designer
  • Data Scientist
  • Crowdsourcerer
  • Online game developer

Now in 2013 these jobs don’t exist at all in most developed countries!

  • Lector
  • Comptometrist
  • Stenographer
  • Typist
  • Telephone Operator
  • Typesetter
  • Word Processing Operator
  • Wake-Up Call Operator
  • Talking Clock broadcaster
  • Card Punch Operator
  • Micrographics operator

With the pace of technological innovation and increase in disruptive technologies across all industries, it is very difficult to predict what jobs will exist for our children by 2020, and many of the skills required for earning a living in the future (note: I didn’t say ‘employment’ – that term itself may disappear), may not necessarily come from a ‘formal’ education. Increasingly people are turning to very different sources of information to meet their ‘educational’ needs.

We are already seeing a massive rise in the provision of online education by the world’s major universities to meet the demand for real time, relevant knowledge acquisition on a 24/7 basis. Many see this as the beginning of the demise of the formal ‘degree’ based education system.

The attitudes of the newer generation of worker are changing dramatically. No longer do they perceive that they will work for only one employer at a time, or work in the same career for more than a few years, or even work regularly. Instead the ability to gain new skills rapidly, to take advantage of constantly changing business and work environments will become their core ‘occupation’.

Formal university style education may give way to a trend towards continuous study via short term on-demand real-time specialist modules, which provide the education required, but without the conferring of a ‘degree’ or at least not in it’s current form. This trend will cause significant disruption to traditional educational institutions, government and private funding models, as well as to the profession of teaching.

Human Bionics

Peter F Hamilton also envisaged a world where ‘smart cells’ are implanted into humans shortly after birth to create an electronic body mesh. Heads-up displays enabled via ‘iris implants’ create a continuous (but able to be turned on and off at will) link to the internet. Everyday citizens, soldiers, emergency services personal are linked to colleagues, mission teams, healthcare, financial bodies, friends, institutes and government services anytime, anywhere, and ‘personal logs’ including video, audio and bio-feedback are recorded, uploaded and transmitted as required. Rebuilding and replacing organs such as eyes, and other vital body parts, and augmenting bodily responses to fight infection, increase adrenalin response, or reduce pain are also described in detail by Hamilton.

Recent developments in ‘human bionics’ may make this vision feasible well before the book’s 2140’s setting. Human bionics is the development of biocompatible electrode fabrication (i.e. electronics and connectors that won’t be rejected by the body) and wireless power supplies plus integrated circuit technology (i.e.  removing the need for wires leading into the body and associated infection risk).

Recently Fujitsu Labs of Europe and the National University of Singapore established a joint research program to develop a Body Sensor Network for Disease Management and Prevention Oriented Healthcare[ii]. Designed for continuous patient monitoring in hospitals and at home, the network would be connected to a Health Cloud for remote processing by computers and healthcare providers. The wireless biomedical sensors form a network around the body, enabling a patient’s vital signs to be collected and transmitted in a context-sensitive manner. Alerts notifying health professionals of abnormalities are automatically triggered.

Advanced bionics will disrupt many existing product and service categories targeted at disability, but more significantly would alter public health and welfare systems. Bionics are currently associated with high upfront costs but provide stronger long term economic benefits. Eventually bionics may advance from disability treatment to performance enhancement opening up even larger markets and consumerising the technology.

Predicting Human Behaviour

In Isaac Asimov’s ‘Foundation’ novels he describes the fictional science of Psychohistory (first introduced in short stories in 1942) which combines history, sociology and mathematical statistics to make general predictions about the future behaviour of very large groups of people. His premise was that although you can’t predict with any accuracy what any one human being will do, you can (based on collection of enough data and the laws of statistics) predict with a high degree of accuracy what massed humanity will do.

Although psychohistory as described is still a long way off, there are some indications that part of the environment for this to occur is starting to form. The incredibly rapid rise of social media, pervasiveness of the internet, advent of Big Data techniques, and increased power of high performance computers (supercomputers) are combining to form the foundation components of the ‘Foundation’ premise.

One of the prerequisites for ‘psychohistory’  is an understanding of what actually influences large masses of people, and the mechanisms by which it occurs. In recent history we witnessed the incredible power of social media to influence the population. In the lead up to the US election, the instant distribution of information about both party’s comments via Twitter and YouTube appears to have had a significant impact on the election outcome. In the middle-east social media played a key role in the spread of the Arab Spring movement resulting in the toppling of governments and increased freedom for major populations.

Closer to everyday life we are seeing real examples of technologies that help us to predict the behaviour of shoppers…

Predicting Crowd Movements
The rise of social media has increased interest in social simulation research, which aims to support decision-making and reasoning by modeling human behavior and interactions. For retail stores, Fujitsu has applied social simulations to the problem of planning the layout and number of cash registers, which can have a significant impact on crowding. Although queuing theory has long made it possible to analyze waiting times in lines at cash registers, it has not been possible to grasp the ways that the store layout contributes to in-store crowding.

By modeling shopper behavior, it is possible to improve our understanding of the factors that cause crowding, such as a shopper’s field of view and tendency to change routes to avoid lines. By combining three behavioral logics of shoppers (limitation, assessment and avoidance), Fujitsu Laboratories was able to clearly reproduce all of the actual observed patterns of crowding. This makes it possible to optimize the number and layout of registers as well as lane opening and closing times.

In 2013, Fujitsu Laboratories plans to launch a business trial to support layout design using such a simulator. Beyond that, it will seek to apply this technology to other complex service operations, including customer support, social welfare and healthcare. It will also continue to advance social-simulation techniques, assess the effects of new solutions in advance, and develop decision-support technologies.

Of course we are nowhere near the level that Asimov was talking about, but it won’t be long before we have accurate empirical data about how the messages we distribute actually influence society as a whole and then can derive some predictions of behaviour from that source. Not to the same extent as Asimov’s scenarios, but we are on that path.

Conclusion

William Gibson once said “The future is already here – it’s just unevenly distributed” …this is becoming increasingly untrue – the future is being distributed much more evenly than ever before!

Ideas and innovation are no longer just the domain of science fiction writer and boffins practising their arcane skills in secret laboratories.

Today with the rise of social media, mass communication, advanced processing power/storage capacity/networks and increased consumerisation, ideas being generated from the person in the street, or home, are resulting in a massive source of potential disruptive technologies which are being distributed globally at an ever increasing pace.


 

*The Three laws of Robotics – The Three Laws of Robotics are a set of three rules written by science fiction author Isaac Asimov and later expanded upon. The rules are introduced in his 1942 short story “Runaround” although they were foreshadowed in a few earlier stories. The Laws are:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. A Zeroth law and a Fifth law were also subsequently proposed.
 
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About Craig Baty

Craig Baty is the Chief Technology and Innovation Officer for Fujitsu Australia and New Zealand. Craig has more than 30 years of international ICT experience and is a well known technology industry adviser, having been a senior executive in the ICT advisory arms of Gartner Asia/Pacific and Japan and other research and advisory firms including Dataquest and Frost & Sullivan for 14 years prior to Fujitsu. Craig is an active contributor to Fujitsu’s Global CTO and Marketing Communities, which together drive thought leadership and the development of innovative and leading edge solutions for customers across the globe. These offerings include Fujitsu’s Australian based Trusted Cloud, ICT sustainability, end user computing, data centres, managed services, and a comprehensive range of consulting and integration services. Craig holds an MBA in International Business and Marketing (SGSM), is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Management, and has commenced an ‘IT in Japan’ focused Doctor of Business Administration. He is also an active member of the Australian Information Industry Association NSW Committee, regular chair and speaker at the AIIA Marketing Forum, member of the Cloud Taskforce and Digital Economy Council(which Fujitsu Chairs), and part of NICTA’s newly formed E-Gov Cluster steering committee.

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