Passive vs. Active Security

Human beings, to a varying degree, all crave security. This is why some of us stick to a lousy job and others amass all they can.

Security is a double edged sword, though. Even more so in a world where change is picking up pace by the day.

Security, in its classic sense, is static.

It is something that secures, holds in place. It means that you have the necessary resources, that you do not have to fear for personal safety, material loss or mental setbacks. This kind of security is provided by wealth, a well protected society or a welfare state. This is a passive type of security.

The passive type of security is more and more detrimental as the world keeps changing faster. This is well exemplified by the opposition market disruptors like Tesla, Uber and Airbnb have faced. Old players want to stick to an old world. Sorry to say, that world is gone already.

In the new world we need new security. And this is security that is not tied up in wealth or fame or the total penetration of a well trained police force. This is security that arises from individual dynamism: the capability to keep in motion, to dance with the changing world.

In a static world you can secure yourself by amassing wealth. In a changing world, nothing guarantees this security anymore. (To be frank, it didn’t before either. That’s why Scrooge McDuck never had enough.)

In a changing world, security is contained in change itself: your very individual capacity to change, to learn, to adapt and to create.

Security can also be found in searching for what you really want to do, to keep on learning new tricks every year, to keep tabs on what is going on in the world, and most forcibly, to find meaning in the service of the well-being of other human beings.

This is a new kind of security, one such that is not susceptible to the structure-disrupting forces of an accelerating world.

This is active security.


Imagination and Creating a Future

It strikes me as odd how we have been brought up to use our imagination backwards.

Imagination is one of the most powerful ways of thinking. It helps us create new things, to figure out new ways to solve problems, to shape the world into new shapes. Imagination is, as Einstein put it, more important than knowledge; knowledge is limited, but imagination contains the entire Universe. Yet we use it upside down.

Most of our imaginary moments are spent in filling in the blanks of everyday life. If a friend won’t answer your call, your imagination kicks straight in. Maybe she’s mad at you for something? Maybe she’s been in an accident and is now lying by the highway? Maybe she has decided to take a surprise retreat in Tibet, and you won’t hear from her in the next ten years? Of course, it could also be that she’s forgotten her phone home, but that would be, well, way too unimaginative.

And yet this kind of blank-filling is at best useless and at worst detrimental. It is not a rare relationship that has started to unravel at these imaginary musings. We are quite economical creatures knowledge-wise, and where we don’t know we usually imagine. Since imagination usually taps into the more emotionally laden visions, it does not serve us that well in filling up the blanks of the everyday life.

On top of this, there is the fact that we rarely use imagination where it actually serves us well: in imagining the future.

We have been led to believe that things stay more or less the same. But they don’t. And those people who are crazy enough to imagine a new world are the ones who actually end up creating it. Yet it seems that not that many people do.

In imagining the future, we can envision new products, new social settings – a better life for ourselves and our loved ones. Even the entire planet if one dares to dream.

And this is where imagination really shows its brawn. It is the compass for the future that can show us things we could maybe one day build. Without this imaginary vision, we will keep on sailing through a fog, towards a destination that nobody knows about.

We need more epistemic humility in our everyday life. We really know dreadfully little both about the big things in life, but also about the little things, like your friends’ not answering the phone. And we should really be wary of our imaginary reactions in filling up the unknown blanks between what we know.

We need more imaginary foresight too. While we know dreadfully little about how things stand now, and even less about how they will be in the future, we are not quite as helpless about the future as one might think.

As Peter Drucker once said, the best way to predict the future is to create it.

And the best way to create it is to imagine it first.


It’s the End of the World As We Know It?

The first thing that struck me when I saw the Guardian apocalyptic headline and its derivatives hit social media was this:

NASA probably really didn’t fund a study on the end of the world, and the world probably is not going to end.

The title was “Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for ‘irreversible collapse’?”

First of all, no, this is not a NASA study, but rather a study that has some minor derivative funding from NASA. The media storm is embarrassing up to the point that NASA issued an official statement on their emphatically not supporting the arguments proposed in the paper.

Now, I am obviously inclined towards the kind of techno-optimism criticized in the study, so in that sense my position is far from neutral to this topic. But seriously, drawing an argument from the demise of the Roman Empire and the Han Dynasty to predict the fall of present day civilization? It’s like saying it’s stupid to think that you could get from Beijing to New York in twelve hours, since you couldn’t do that a hundred years ago.

To boot, it is even arguable that in a very relevant sense neither the Roman Empire nor the Han Dynasty really even ended. Throughout human history, most human civilizations have not in fact really collapsed (in terms of being wiped out permanently  from the face of the Earth), but rather they have morphed into something new – of course, often following some dramatic cultural shifts.

The case of the sustainability of resource use is, however, a very important one. While we have come a long way, we still have a long way to go. And with developments in some areas, new problems have arisen that need to be addressed.

To this end, we need both solutions arising from technological breakthroughs, as well as changes in our mindsets regarding consuming material stuff. It is by pushing forward where we can, and holding back where we need to that we can resolve these issues.

But these are issues that we can emphatically resolve. No dynamic system moves on inevitably on a mechanistic track, least of all a system comprising of as complicated beings as humans.

I suppose the real historical lesson you should draw regarding apocalypses is that there have always been doomsayers certain of the looming apocalypse.

Yet here we are.


Neuroimplants and Augmenting the Mind

There was an interesting piece in the Wall Street Journal on neuroimplanting. The authors argued that it is not a matter of whether neuroimplants will break through, but when. Already, we have EEG-based applications for directing machines directly with brain signals, and as the article points out, some motor conditions such as Parkinson’s can be treated with microelectrodes.

Neuroimplanting is, however, a technology that is slightly further down the horizon owing to a very simple obstacle that many other soon to be seen technological breakthroughs don’t suffer from: we still don’t really know that well how the brain works.

The brain, according to current knowledge, has about a hundred billion neurons, with a whopping hundred thousand billion synapses connecting them. For the last few decades, it was thought that each synapse could function as something like a transistor, either letting current through or not.

This would put the amount of controllable variables in the brain in the ballpark of a maximum of one hundred thousand billion. Controlling such a huge amount of variables with microelectrodes or even neural dust is going to be quite challenging.

But the complexity of the neural net is only the beginning. Like I said, the above has been the received view for the last few decades. Recent advents in neuroscience have, however, pointed to an even more complex picture.

In a groundbreaking Stanford imaging study, it was found out that the synapse is in fact a far more complicated structure than a simple transistor, with individual memory systems and other components more typical to a processor than a transistor.

The neural complexity is not limited to the brain either. Also the gut has about five hundred million neurons to further stir up the stew, so to speak. Add to this the more than a hundred neurotransmitters that either excite or inhibit neural signals, the complexity of variables to be controlled or analyzed by an implant is mind-blowing. I won’t even go into glia cells.

So the brain is likely to be tremendously more complex than we think. But so what? Like Marcus and Koch rightly point out in the WSJ paper, every breakthrough technology has looked at such challenges at some point.

I do believe we will have garden variety neuroimplanting in the future. But I suppose that future is slightly farther beyond than is implied in the article. That being said, I think we should not downplay the upcoming advent of HUD’s and other augmented UI devices.

After all, we do have highly sophisticated neural interfaces in place already: our eyes, ears and skin. In a classical experiment Paul Bach-y-Rita used the skin and the tongue to restore vision – yes, actual visual imagery! – to congenitally blind people. In fact the EEG devices that we now have are not that different from what Bach-y-Rita did. By picking up relevant EEG signals we can, for example, guide a robotic arm. Just like we could by hooking the electrode to a facial muscle, for example.

Before we get to the point where a memory module is hooked up directly to the brain – and we will get there, by the latest in a century or two – we can already significantly boost our mental faculties by the devices we have right now.

By being able to tap into relevant information and sorting out the wheat from the chaff, we can augment our mental capacity dramatically as we speak, with nothing fancier than a smartphone.


Reality is Breaking Down

Our reality is breaking down. It is becoming more virtual by the day.

In a sense, reality has always been partly virtual, at least ever since we learned to use language. By being able to reference times past, we bring them to play in the present moment.

Constructs such as national borders or even money are to a great extent more virtual than real. If we had not agreed to a complex behavioral pact, they would not exist.

But with the advent of technology, the borders between the virtual and the real are starting to blur unlike we’ve ever seen before.

Like Ray Kurzweil said in a recent article, even telephone is a type of virtual reality. It brings the person far away from you virtually close. But the telephone is a baby step compared to what is about to shake the very foundation of our reality.

With the advent of wearable tech and augmented reality, the next generation of computing is around the corner. The scope of this leap is similar to moving from huge computers to desktops, from desktops to laptops and from laptops to mobile.

New digital layers will permeate our everyday life.

And what with the advent of augmented reality, these layers will be harder and harder to tell apart from our physical world. With something like Google Glass, you can have virtual objects to manipulate.

You can have overlays such as translations displayed in real time over what you see. I tried the Spanish translator Word Lens with Google Glass. It was spooky to see an English text scramble into Spanish right in front of me.

Our lives will have more and more virtual elements. Maybe a virtual pet one day, like a real life Tamagochi. Or overlays displaying you the very headlines you want to see, instead of the tabloid attention grabbers. Perhaps, as Vernor Vinge riffs in his novel Rainbow’s End, even building facades designed according to your preferences.

But the real and the virtual are merging on a far deeper level than just a digital overlay.

3D printing will also make the reverse true. Whereas wearable tech and AR bring the digital layer as an integrated part of physical experience, 3D printing will also convert parts of the digital layer into actual objects when needed.

So the road from the real to the virtual is getting shorter, as is the road from the virtual to the real.

What the combination of the two brings one can only speculate. Already, prototype cases exist, where an object has been designed using AR (i.e. simulating the physical object) and then reproduced using 3DP. What happens when these two technologies become a part of our everyday life is anybody’s guess.

However these developments do pan out, one thing is for sure. What we used to think of as reality is breaking down as we speak.

The reality of the future will be more virtual than we can imagine.


On Success as a Burden

I had a crazy first day at work this year. After a few weeks of Christmas holidays, I came back to work energized and happy to see the awesome bunch of people I get to work with.

About two hours in, we had reached two thirds of the entire months’ sales quota. It was really weird. While money is not by far primary to what we do, if you want to run a successful company, it does, of course, need to make some money. Now we had in a few hours brought in the majority of the sales we had projected for the entire month.

But then things went crazy. I received a couple of emails that confirmed that a few really long shots we had taken had come through. And as I was going home after the day’s work, mulling over these successes, the biggest breakthrough of the day (and the last half a year or so) landed in my email. I was completely dumbstruck. When it rains, it pours, I guess.

When I was walking towards my front door I realized we had had four independent big successes, big ones to celebrate on a montly or even a quarterly basis – on the first day of work, no less!

But I wasn’t happy.

We had had financial success, marketing success, a big deal come in and a few new doors open that I hadn’t dreamed could happen. All in the scope of one single day.

And while I do know from a truck load of studies money or fame don’t really contribute to happiness, I had in fact done all this while working with what I love, with people who I really admire and cherish. So everything should have been amazing.

But it wasn’t.

After some head scratching I got an inkling of what was going on.

A ton of studies show that lasting happiness arises from pursuing activities that are intrinsically rewarding – ie. fun in themselves; and spending time with people whom you love, with whom you are respected and with whom can be your authentic self.

I would emphatically argue that we have all this at work.

But happiness requires one more thing. Your attention needs to be where happiness is generated. In other words, in your work, or in your people.

And this is how success can go sour.

If you focus on your work itself, or the authentic interactions with the people you work and live with, you will flourish. But if instead, your attention is on financial success, the praise for your product, or in that huge marketing breakthrough, it will be shifted away from your real sources of happiness.

Now you do need those successes to keep going. A company that does not have financial or marketing successes is not going to be a company very long. But paradoxically, if you focus on those successes once you have them, you will not be happy.

Your attention will zoom in on the results that you’ve achieved.

And results are scary because they are static. Life is not.

What with life being a living, flowing thing, it is almost a given that many of your successes will eventually be gone. And that is scary.

We need successes to keep going, to have a direction for our work. But we need to zoom out from those successes once we have reached them, and carry on with our work, towards the next big thing.

The key is to keep moving.

To do what you love, with people you love.

And to cherish the doing and the people.

As Lao Tzu said:

“Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.”


Am I the Monkey Pressing a Button?

Rolf Dobelli gave an outstanding talk a bit less than a year ago at the London School of Economics. The topic was “The Art of Thinking Clearly”.

Among many of his enticing anecdotes was a classic poised to demonstrate the futility of leadership literature.

Dobelli argued that if you have five hundred monkeys who press a button to predict whether the Dow Jones goes up or down this week, about half of them get it right. Then, once you remove the ones who got it wrong, rinse and repeat.

Next week once again about half of the monkeys are correct. And in about twenty weeks there will be one monkey that will have predicted the stock market better than any known human stock broker in history.

As a consequence, business researchers will no doubt be tremendously interested in this particular monkey. They will analyze its habits, break down its routines. They will write scientific papers about it, write inspirational books about it. The monkey will serve as a guide to a gigantic amount of future wannabe stock brokers.

And all the while its success was down to pure chance.

This is a thought that deeply troubles me.

I have found tremendous inspiration in both leadership lit and in reading the biographies of the likes of Richard Branson, Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs. And all the while it may be that these people, generally thougth of as exceptional, are simply the ones that rose to the top owing eventually just to pure chance.

I don’t want to say that Branson, Edison or Jobs would be purely talentless. But obviously there are a gigantic amount of people of equal or greater talent who never get lauded in anecdotes or biographies.

And yet I find this idea somehow suspicious.

I suppose to be an entrepreneur, one must believe that there is a way to study and to get better in the game. To look up to the giants and to learn. That not everything is down to pure chance. Even if it cannot be codified in a routine or condensed in an all-encompassing anecdote.

But the curse of entrepreneurship is that you simply cannot know in advance. Nor can you, as a matter of fact, know it afterwards either. Because even if massive success were to befall you, it could still be down to pure chance.

You could still be the monkey pressing the button.

But the only thing that I am pretty sure is this (and I suppose this sums up at least something essential about entrepreneurship):

No books will be written of the monkey that never pressed the button to begin with.


5 Ways School Damages Us – And 5 Ways to Fix It

Some years ago Sir Ken Robinson gave a massively popular TED talk, entitled “How Schools Kill Creativity”. The modern school has taken a hit or two since, being criticized for having students listen to mindnumbingly boring lectures, or directing their motivation to wrong things like grades and SAT scores instead of learning.

Having looked in depth at how learning takes place, I must admit much of such criticism is in place. That being said, the modern school does do a tremendously good job in many ways. After all, ubiquitous Western literacy is not something to be trifled with, if you take a look at countries where it does not exist. Being armed with just the scope of the critic, it is easy to miss on all the good things we have achieved.

Be that as it may, while we have come a long way, there’s still work to be done. And while leveling criticisms can be fruitful, I believe it is better to also offer alternatives to the objects of critique. Hence, here are five ways in which I think school does really damage us – and five ways to fix them.

1. Fixed Mindset

The Damage: Schools teach what the Stanford professor Carol Dweck calls the ‘fixed mindset’. It is a way of regarding oneself as consisting of a fixed set of properties and skills. In other words, you are either talented at something, or you are not, period. The standard testing of schools is very inclined to maintain this point of view, since grades are not regarded so much as indicators of future work, but of current competence.

The Fix: instead of locking our kids into fixed mindsets, we should help them embrace Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’. This means that skills and talents are not fixed, but grow with practice. Modern science seems to point towards this being in fact the more realistic view of the two. To establish a growth mindset, students should be allowed to progress at their own pace, with grading used to find the focus where further work is needed. In the growth mindset there are no grade C students. There are just “not quite yet A” students.

2. Focus on Weaknesses

The Damage: Here is another artifact of the modern school grading system. It tends to guide focus to the weaknesses of a student. Whereas weakness-based grading may be of use to point out where work is needed (as per above), the fact is that nobody can be great at everything. (Yes, even straight-A students have their weaknesses.)

The Fix: Instead of finding systematically what weaknesses students have, we should rather focus on emphasizing and clarifying strengths. Studies show that focusing on strenghts not only makes learning more fun but also adds up to general well-being. There are also existing pedagogical models that can be tapped into, such as the Montessori model that constantly seeks to single out the most enthusiastic interests of the students and focus on those.

3. Extrinsic Motivation

The Damage: In motivating children by having them aspire towards greater grades, and scaring them with sanctions if they do not succeed, school creates a strongly extrinsically motivating environment. Too bad, studies show that extrinsic motivation not only kills creativity but also seriously hampers even basic learning.

The Fix: Schools should tap into intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation consists of trying to fulfill the basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness. Autonomy means that students should have more freedom in how to study. Competence means what was said above: personal growth and focus on strengths. And relatedness means working with people you really feel accepted with. By tapping into these three areas, I am sure teachers will see a soaring in learning experiences.

4. Lack of Collaboration

The Damage: It is utterly idiotic that at the most critical moments in school life, children are stripped of their most powerful tool: collaboration. It does not really help that much to have kids participate in tedious group work, if when push comes to shove, working together is interpreted as cheating.

The Fix: There are practically no situations in real life like test taking, where you simply cannot ask or go look for an answer to a problem. Why then do we drill our kids up to 12 years with this idiotic exercise? The brain is social to begin with. Let it work the way it is meant to. Kids will flourish and thrive if they get a tough problem to solve – and they can dive into it with all their social and networked might.

5. Killing Creativity

The Damage: Kids aged seven were asked who was creative. Everybody said yes. Then kids aged twelve were asked the same question. Only about half of them said yes. And once high schoolers were asked the question, only a fraction considered themselves creative. Why? If you have lived over ten years in an environment where it’s been signalled that there are right and only right answers, it’s rather hard to be creative.

The Fix: Questions are wonderful things that should not be killed with right answers. Also, coming up with solutions (note, not answers) to questions, there are a million avenues of inquiry one could pursue. Consider for a moment, what kind of a wonderland of creativity the school could be if only this one little thing was changed: when a question is asked, there are no wrong answers. And when a solution is generated, there are no wrong methods.

The problem is, it does put a lot of pressure in coming up with interesting enough questions.

But that, I guess, is what teaching is all about.


Towards a Post Work Society

Western countries have two problems. Problems, which I suppose may have quite a similar solution to.

The first problem is the constantly looming economical crisis indicated by economic problems especially in the Southern EU and the USA. It seems that we are constantly on the verge of an economic crisis in the West, owing mostly to the offshoring of heavy industry, to the fluctuations in the financial market and to the constantly more skewed demographic structure of our nations.

The second problem is the prospect of automation in the job market. It is practically guaranteed that with the second wave of automation, a huge amount of jobs will simply vanish. Just as no horse cart drivers exist anymore, in the future we’ll have no bus drivers, service clerks or call center assistants. If a job can be replaced by a robot, it will be replaced by a robot.

The first problem is a productivity problem. If we are losing our industry, if we cannot operate in the financial market and if we are running out of able bodied workforce, our productivity is going to tank. And at the end of the day, it is not the hours we pour into our work that create the revenue that makes our pay, but what we get done. So we need to get more done with less legs, with less time to do it in.

The second problem is a social and a moral problem. If we are growing towards a situation where there will simply not be enough work to go around for everybody, how should we treat those who do not get to work?

Like I said, the solution to both problems is probably the same: we need to help our people figure out what they really want to do, and we need to let them do exactly that.

In order to meet the productivity demands of the near future, we need to get more things done in less time. And as studies show, people who are really into what they do can get a huge amount done compared to those who are not. Like the ex-CTO of a major corporation said a couple of weeks ago, an enthusiastic coder can be a thousand times more productive than a frustrated one.

And if we are truly entering a post work world, those people not working are in an even more pressing need to figure out something fun and engaging to do with their time. Right now, people without jobs can tap into welfare, at least in Scandinavia. While that may be enough to pay the bills, if unemployed people don’t find new jobs soon, they’ll become frustrated and alienated. This frustration can, with time, create a massive social problem.

If a post work world segregates people into the valuable people who do work and the not-so-valuable who don’t, we’ll still have a problem. Even if we can get everybody’s stomach full and give them roofs over their heads. But if, instead of economic success, we learned to emphasize the importance of doing interesting things, of passion, of finding one’s vocation, the situation might be different.

By going through the trouble of directing one’s passion towards an immediately pressing need people could, in addition to working with interesting things, also boost their material well being over the minimum provided by the society. But also people who would not or could not contribute in such a way would not only be a welfare burden, but in fact a valuable part of the society in another way.

Much of innovation works like this: in order to create something new and useful, you first have to fool with a lot of old and unuseful stuff. People dedicated to non-work activities might in fact boost the innovative capacity of the human race massively.

A post work society could distribute the labor so that people could tap into what truly interests them and work on that, eventually either producing something of compensatable value or not. We could have generative people who are not immediately productive, and executive people who are, with the two working even in some kind of unison.

By encouraging people to work with what truly interests them, the work itself would be of value, even if it did not immediately enter the marketplace. And by this I do not only mean some intrinstic human value, but also the very bottom line. In a changing world we need to be constantly innovative to keep up with the market.

I believe that the impending productivity crisis will require us to rethink the way we work pretty soon. And while I am not entirely sure as to how we should start to address the moral conundrums involved in letting some people grasshopper their way through their lives, while the ants provide, it is certainly interesting to think about it.

A new world needs new perspectives. Be it a world without jobs, or a world without work.