Technology consists of two ingredients – invention and innovation. History suggests that the greatest technical advances have emerged as a result of either war or disaster. Connected to this is a great story about the motorcar. 1898 saw the first ever Global Urban Planning Conference take place, in New York. The problem they met to discuss was how to dispose of horse manure in cities. The population of the US had grown by 30m people between 1800-1900, American cities experienced a corresponding increase of population density, for example, New York 1800: 39,183 people per sq. mile, 1900: 90,366.
In 1890, when the conference was first suggested, New York had 100,000 horses generating 1,200 metric tons of manure daily, which all had to be swept up manually and disposed of. The problem was compounded by the need to bring more horses into the City to cart the waste away, which in turn just added to the manure pile. The land required to maintain and feed these horses was considerable. The Poo Conference of 1898 was not a success, breaking up after the third of 10 scheduled days. Delegates concluded that cities would be uninhabitable during summer months due to the flies and disease spread by the horse manure. The mood in the papers of the day reflected the feeling that urban populations had reached a limit. As we all know they were wrong. What saved the day was the invention and adoption of the motorcar.
It can be argued that the very rapid take-up of the motorcar in the early 1900s was partially the direct result of fear. The motorcar was the invention, however it took Henry Ford to innovate the production process to make the motorcar suitable for the mass market.
So what are today’s equivalents to the 1898 horse manure problem in cities?
I can see three – in no particular order:
- Poor choices from misguided decision makers
- Out of control gene/virus mutation, caused by humans not nature
- Security, ownership and control of data (personal and corporate).
Poor choices from misguided decision makers is a really terrifying prospect, and increasingly serious as the consequences of bad decisions gets magnified. Let me give you a clear example and a technology that can solve it.
QE or not to QE? To make any impact on an economy the size of the US – one needs to apply $trillions. This is an unimaginable sum to just about everyone. Schools do not teach students the meaning of large numbers. If I asked each reader to tell me what $5 trillion could buy – without a Google search or study – then I think the range of answers would be wide. You, dear reader, are an educated elite with a high degree of financial experience and knowledge. Yet, people just like us are making decisions about whether to print another $trillion or not. The consequences to QE or not to QE are very apparent in the relative economic performances of the USA and UK versus EU since 2009. The EU is tipping over into recession again. In your children’s lifetime people will be making decisions based in quadrillions. I cannot imagine this, yet I know it will happen. Our schools are not going to catch up anytime soon.
So the answer is AGI – we need machines to help us understand the effect of large numbers whilst our brains wake up to the task. This is just one example of where the development of AGI is important. It is much more significant than just spotting trends in big data sets, although that is also quite useful.
Out of control gene/virus mutation manufactured by humans not naturally occurring. Another awesome problem.
Example: The cost of sequencing a human genome a decade ago was roughly $30m. In a few years it may be as low as $5000 (at the moment it’s sitting at around $7,000). This technological advance has some hair-raising consequences. National Geographic magazine printed an article in Nov 2013 which helps alludes to some:
“In the mid-2000s, David Markovitz, a scientist at the University of Michigan, and his colleagues took a look at the blood of people infected with HIV. Human immunodeficiency viruses kill their hosts by exhausting the immune system, allowing all sorts of pathogens to sweep into their host’s body. So it wasn’t a huge surprise for Markovitz and his colleagues to find other viruses in the blood of the HIV patients. What was surprising was where those other viruses had come from: from within the patients’ own DNA.
HIV belongs to a class of viruses called retroviruses. They all share three genes in common. One, called gag, gives rise to the inner shell where the virus’s genes are stored. Another, called env, makes knobs on the outer surface of the virus, that allow it to latch onto cells and invade them. And a third, called pol, makes an enzyme that inserts the virus’s genes into its host cell’s DNA.
It turns out that the human genome contains segments of DNA that match pol, env, and gag. Scientists have identified 100,000 pieces of retrovirus DNA in our genes, making up eight percent of the human genome. That’s a huge portion of our DNA when you consider that protein-coding genes make up just over one percent of the genome.
Scientists have studied these so-called endogenous retroviruses both in humans and in other species, and the evidence all points to the same scenario for how they genetically merged with us. Our ancestors were infected with retroviruses on a regular basis. On rare occasion, a virus infected a sperm or egg and managed to end up in an embryo. Every new cell in the embryo inherited the retrovirus DNA implanted in its genome. And then the embryo grew up into an adult, which then had offspring of its own, and passed the virus DNA on as well.”
The whole science of genes, viruses and microbiology is a massive field of possibilities and problems. One company tackling this head on is Oxford Nanopore Technologies.
The security, ownership and control of data (personal, corporate) is an increasing worry generally.
Example: Recently, less than honest personnel working in a utility company were found to be selling smart meter data to teams of burglars who would come and empty a house whilst the owners were on holiday. They knew when someone was on holiday as a result of knowing the house’s usage of electricity was plunging. Emails, photo albums, texts, banking passwords – in fact anything digital – are liable to be stolen and misused. The police and Government Agencies globally are way behind the curve ball and seem ill prepared to meet the ongoing challenge. Policy is reactive not proactive. There are a number of companies we are interested in that have a specific relationship to this opportunity – Fleep is a great example. Fleep is a secure open platform messaging system. Unlike Facebook or Instagram – it has not been architected as an island. In other words you can use Fleep to communicate with any other platform. I use it as an email replacement because it works in a way that enables me to do away with filing emails into folders- saving about 3 hours per week of my time. Because I only receive Fleep messages from people whom I have invited into a conversation I get no spam, no adverts, no junk. New tools like Fleep are going to get traction and overtake the incumbent email systems like Outlook.
Author: David Gammon
Excerpt from National Geographic “The Lurker: How a Virus Hid in our Genome for Six Million Years” by Carl Zimmer.