Science, technology & design

Technology is the New Religion

The world’s great religions, such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, have thrived and endured because of their ability to connect with every area of human life. If religions were separate from life, practised only in churches or mosques once or twice a week, they would not have the power and influence they still have all over the world.

In this context, it is a powerful statement to say technology is the new religion.

Nicholas Carr says the greatest of all the US home-grown religions – more than Jehovah’s Witnesses or even Scientology – is the religion of technology. It is the technologists who lead us today, gurus such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg.

The philosopher, Michael Heim, asked what better way to “emulate God’s knowledge” than to create a “virtual world constituted by bits of information”? One computer scientist even predicted a Jesus-like “second coming of the computer”.

The language of love of technology (like God’s love) permeates every area of life. In fact, it is not possible to write about any topic today without including the role of technology. In many cases, technology is the dominant force and the rest of us just have to catch up. Even a simple technological object like a mobile phone has had a massive, transformative effect on our human relationships.

But is this godlike vision of technology overly utopian and simply another way for global commercial interests to thrive?

Carr says tech companies define progress as essentially technological and they simply want to remake culture to fit their own business model. After all, the internet began with the vision of a huge, free, democratic network and now it is a centralised, monetised, tightly held information system organised “essentially to make its entrepreneurs wealthy”.

For example, Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, sells his business to advertisers as precision targeting of a huge captive audience. Yet he tells the public Facebook is a social good, to help them discover and maintain relationships through “shared experiences” (shared with advertisers, yes).

Uber, which claims new-found flexibility and freedom for drivers of their own vehicles, has thrown off the usual responsibilities of being an employer and commercialised cheap labour. Futhermore, tech companies like to be seen to be doing something about these problems, so they can avoid further regulation that would curtail the same activities.

It could be viewed as “innocent fraud” – innocent because companies feel no conscious guilt, and fraud, because we are told it is in the public interest. Many people have called the great religions fraudulent too.

If technology is a religion, then the masses may well ‘put up’ with exploitation, advertising, intrusion, because of their essential belief in the great goodness of technology. Carr goes on to say Silicon Valley sells “not transcendence, but withdrawal”. He says we all “flock to the virtual because the real demands too much of us”.

People always believed in God as a way of dealing with the challenges and suffering of life. Now it seems they have turned to technology to protect them from the real.

Ref: The Conversation (Aus), 22 June 2017, ‘Uber's problems highlight silicon valley's faltering vision for the future’ by D Glance. See also Aeon (Aus), 26 August 2016, and Daily Telegraph (UK) ‘The world wide cage’ by N. Carr. ‘Utopia is creepy: and other provocations’ by Nicholas Carr, 2016.
Search words: technology, religion, God, advertising, commercial, Facebook, Uber, Silicon Valley, virtual, real.
Trend tags: Virtualisation, digitalisation

Meeting of Minds

There are times in a relationship where one partner seems to know exactly what the other is thinking. At least, it has happened to us and it feels very creepy. Scientists at University of Washington are taking that creepiness a lot further by using technology to ‘read’ somebody’s mind.

Of course, it is farfetched to think we can read a mind and experience exactly what that person is experiencing. Even if they are thinking of flying, you are unlikely to have exactly the same thoughts about that act.

There are certain basic, shared factors, according to researcher Andrea Stocco, that can be measured with the right technology.

The technologies she uses are an electroencephalogram (EEG) and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which measure or create activity in the brain. One person wears a cap of electrodes to reveal their brain activity. A computer program filters out the relevant brain activity (interesting software decision) then researchers use TMS to create the same activity in the other person.

In one experiment, researchers set up two people in different buildings to play 20 questions with each other. The ‘transmitter’ wore the electrode cap, and the ‘receiver’ received their brain activity and had to choose from yes-or-no questions. Volunteers chose the right object 72% of the time, which is a lot better than chance.

What would be the purpose of mind reading?

People with depression or schizophrenia have specific patterns in the brain that could be changed by transmitting healthy thoughts from someone without these conditions. A person who has had a stroke, and lost part of their brain function, could learn to operate again by receiving stimulation from a brain that still has that function.

Measuring brain activity like this still seems to be a long way from actually reading somebody’s mind. In fact, we fervently hope a technology is never found that could successfully do this.

Ref: New Scientist (UK), 5 March 2016, ‘Let’s talk, brain to brain’, by A. Stocco,
Search words: telepathy, electroencephalogram (EEG), transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), depression, rehab, transmitter, receiver.
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Make the Machines Work for You

Our stories in this issue, ‘Why the middle class will suffer’ and ‘Full-time for robots; part-time for humans’, describe the possibilities of huge job losses among people doing manual or knowledge work. Nobody can compete with robots, or at least, that is the prevailing sentiment. The so-called ‘augmentation strategy’ says we can use machines to make us look better. By using machines to augment our skills, we can have more productive and satisfying careers.

Usually, we ask what tasks could be done more cheaply and rapidly by machines. The augmentation question is: what new feats might we achieve if we had better thinking machines to help us?

An economist at MIT makes another point, commonly overlooked. He says “tasks that cannot be substituted by computerization are generally complemented by it”. In other words, humans and machines can work together in a complementary way. This is known as augmentation.

Consultants are fond of summarising their thoughts in terms of a few simple steps. To stay in the workforce, they say at MIT, you need to: Step up, Step aside, Step in, Step narrowly and Step forward. These steps are more complex than they first sound.

Step up means you use your mind at higher levels, such as broad thinking and abstraction that computers cannot. Computers can do the number-crunching, but it takes intellectual power to investigate the data and come up with hypotheses. Orbitz, for example, wants employees with deep expertise in an area coupled with broad curiosity about how the organisation works.

Step aside means you draw on other forms of intelligence, if you are not intellectually inclined. This includes special human skills that are not readily codable, such as making people laugh, designing a beautiful chair, or assessing a horse for the racetrack. Even a senior lawyer, accountant or banker, may step aside from the minutae of information towards building good, reciprocal relationships with clients.

Step in means you focus on the work the computer does and modify it to work more effectively. Peter Drucker once said of the computer, “it’s a total moron”. Computers are only as clever as the people who program them and people who can analyse and improve the work of computers are stepping in.

Step narrowly is another way of finding your own niche. Somebody with an encyclopedic knowledge of their business is difficult to replicate with a computer. These people are well educated, have learned on the job, and are very focused in their interests. Machines can help them do a better job by taking over the laborious work.

If all else fails, Step forward means you design the next generation of computers. As Bill Gates said, programming is “safe for now”. So if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. The very things that machines are good at, combined with many non-codable human qualities (creativity, unpredictability, emotion, dishonesty), might help remove the threats of automation.

Ref: Harvard Business Review (US) June 2015, ‘Beyond automation’ by T. Davenport and J. Kirby.
Search words: automation, augmentation, relationships, creativity, complementary, humanity.
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Shrinking the Utility Giant

It’s hard to sell something nobody can see. But luckily for utility companies, we can’t live without electricity and least of all now. Unfortunately for them, they are often slow to act, expensive and bureaucratic and no amount of colourful rebranding can substitute for that over-used word, innovation.

Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, of Tesla, says it is moving from a “mine-and-burn hydrocarbon economy towards a solar electric company” and claims it will transform the business model of 3,200 utilities providing electricity to 140 million American customers. All it takes, according to Musk, is a Model S/X/3, Solar panel system and a Powerwall to reduce consumer dependence on the grid.

Musk is a radical with a massive transformative purpose (MTP apparently), but he is not the only one who says utilities must change.

According to MIT, some of the biggest forces for change are already apparent: growing use of renewable energy sources like wind and solar; widespread efforts to decarbonise because of climate change; and interconnectedness of electricity grids with communications, transport and natural gas networks.

Utilities have no choice but to deconstruct as power companies and rebuild as platforms for other companies with new skills and ideas to provide and distribute energy. In a sense, the utilities must start to give up control of what they provide.

Companies like RWE and E.On have already split into heavy generation utilities and lighter retail companies that do the distribution and customer service. Haier, for example, changed from a low-quality Chinese business to a platform supporting thousands of small enterprises. This provides a model for utility platforms.

As one commentator remarked, utility companies talk about smart grids, distributed networks and smart IoT devices, but then run their businesses using email, Powerpoint and endless meetings. They even neglect social media, which allows employees and customers to contribute their ideas and tend not to take radical start-ups, like Tesla and thousands of others, seriously.

Demand for power is not going to reduce in the near future. Customers are starting to demand smart meters, not just to reduce bills, but for the feeling they can control their consumption. They never had this control before and, given that energy is invisible, it means they want control over what they can see: distribution, payment methods, customer service.

Perhaps rather than thinking about smart meters, utilities should start to think about smart customers.

Ref:, 17 November 2016, ‘Can utility companies make the transition to energy platforms?’ by L Bryant.
MIT, 2016 report, ‘Utility of the future’.
Search words: utility, energy, Tesla, infrastructure, smart meter, distribution, sustainable, demand, customers, start-ups
Trend tags: Electrification

Literary Dystopia Predicts the Future

Predictions about the future can come from any angle and we respect the work of science fiction writers in this task. Authors, such as George Orwell or Margaret Atwood, have given us some unappealing images of the dystopic future. Now Yuval Noah Harari has written Homo Deus, with an equally depressing view of where humanity will end up.

Homo Deus (“man of god”) builds on the previous book, Sapiens, but goes further to predict the end of being human.

In the future, the super-rich will be the winners (surprise, surprise). They will give their medical and genetic data to Google and enhance their minds with transcranial stimulation. Algorithms will make their hard decisions for them. The rich will also be able to upgrade their offspring, not with expensive private schools, but using genetic engineering. They will shop from a genetic child catalogue, rather like Avon. These super-intelligent cyborgs will no longer be separate human entities, but networked, rather like the ancient Greek gods.

Meanwhile, the “useless masses” will console themselves with 3D virtual reality games and drugs. This is not so far from the current truth, is it? But it will go further, with no belief in the value of human life and even loss of free will. Brain scanners will detect decisions even before people have made them. Of course, there is no place for religion, which Harari calls “self-absorption” and “infantile delusion”.

It’s a nasty future, extrapolated from the present. But it fails to consider that humanity never continues along the same path for long. We often lack the imagination to see that change will happen, when we least expect it, and from a completely different direction. Is it possible then, that rather than become cyborgs, we learn to become more human?

Ref: Sunday Times (UK), 28 August 2016, ‘Our fearful future’ by J McConnachie.
Homo Deus: A brief history of tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari.
Search words: Sapiens, data, electromagnetic fields, cyborg, religion, free will, ethics.
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