We’ve come a long way from the days of the first satellite, Sputnik, and the first human footprint on the Moon. Space is now our second home. But we’ve also reached a turning point in how we’re exploring space. ‘Old space’ was about national and ideological rivalries. ‘New space’ is about investment and expanding businesses.
Listen to the full Fast Forward episode 6 on tech in the new space race
Space tech becomes a respectable investment
Professor Chris Welch, astronautics and space engineer at the International Space University in Strasburg thinks the shift in focus for space exploration is crucial. “Space has become a respectable place to invest money. People have seen the space sector has kept growing despite economic ups and downs.
“Technology has also transformed. New space has smaller satellites and spacecraft, and is product-based.” Professor Welch talks about how having access to more funding means space businesses can take more risks, which is good news for tech. Industries on the side of space exploration – like those using satellite data – are growing at light speed.
Adapting space law for business
All this space business growth has brought with it a need to reconsider the laws of space. Assistant professor Tanja Masson-Zwaan specializes in Space Law at University of Leiden and thinks it comes back to the ‘old space’ versus ‘new space’ evolution.
“Space law has, for about 50 years, been based on states as actors. With companies becoming involved and maybe becoming the main actors, a whole new ball game is emerging.” Masson-Zwaan explains the rules of the new space ball game in this episode of Fast Forward.
On the subject of all things legal, Kaspersky Principal Security Researcher David Emm sees ample potential for cybermischief in space. Whether jamming GPS signals to try and effect missile guidance systems or hijacking satellite communications, cybercriminals flock to high-profile events when the world is watching, and space ticks all the boxes.
We shouldn’t discount the potential of disrupting what’s happening in space as a way to cause havoc on Earth either, such as damaging infrastructure like water and transport that increasingly relies on satellites.
His advice? “A crucial thing that always needs to be analyzed is, what needs to be connected and what doesn’t? Part of that is risk assessment.”
Welcoming astronauts of all genders
Future space safety will mean making sure we have the best minds on board. One way new space can do better is by finding and developing those with the most potential.
Rocket Women aims to empower more girls to follow careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM.) Although most probably still picture a man in response to the word ‘astronaut,’ Rocket Women highlights women have always been part of the space race.
Listen to Fast Forward episode 6 to hear Rocket Women founder Vinita Marwaha Madill on some of the barriers women face in the career, and what Rocket Women is doing to help shift them.
Should we be polite to AI assistants? Why don’t we understand AI is strange because humans are strange? Are people getting their perceptions of robots from The Terminator franchise? I interview Dr. Beth Singler, anthropologist and Junior Research Fellow in artificial intelligence (AI) at University of Cambridge, on the weird and wonderful ways we imagine AI, robotics and the future of work.
Dr. Beth Singler (@BVLSingler) is one of many experts appearing in Tomorrow Unlocked’s new audio series Fast Forward. She examines the social, ethical and philosophical implications of AI and robotics, and has spoken at Edinburgh Science Festival, London Science Museum and New Scientist Live.
Ken: In your work, you engage people in conversations about the implications of AI and robotics. What do people think AI is?
Beth: For the public, it isn’t one thing. People point to examples of AI being implemented, but it has different definitions for people. They draw presumptions from science fiction and media accounts of dangerous AI and scary robots. It’s a malleable term – people say ‘the algorithm’ and mean AI.
Many think of AI in the workplace replacing human physical work, but we see AI taking on more knowledge labor and even emotional labor.
Ken: What kind of emotional tasks can AI do?
Beth: We increasingly see interfaces with AI that give simulated emotional responses. AI assistants do tasks for you but pleasantly and civilly. Call center work is already highly structured and scripted – an AI assistant or chatbot can take over that pleasantry system. How workplaces implement AI will influence how we connect with other humans.
Ken: Are we creating a human-machine social world we’ll have to learn to interact with?
Beth: Yes. We’re seeing these human-machine interactions playing out in different places – in the home, workplace, and care settings. We’re having to understand that relationship and teach our children to negotiate it. There are discussions on whether children should be polite when using AI assistants. We’re coming up with a new social format for interactions with AI.
Ken: I thought, of course you should be polite to machines – if only because one day they’ll look at everything we’ve said and done and judge us accordingly. I want to be on the right side of them.
Beth: We also see arguments that you should be civil to AI assistants because this is how we should behave to other entities, whether human or non-human – that it reflects our natures. If we aren’t civil to machines, it says more about us than their needs. There are many different answers to questions of politeness to AI assistants.
Ken: People find conversations with Cleverbot amusing when it asks things like, “Don’t you wish you had a body?” or “What is God to you?” They don’t consider Cleverbot thinks it’s appropriate because a human asked IT those questions. We’re looking into a strange, distorting mirror and not recognizing our reflection.
Beth: Absolutely. There’s a reason the Black Mirror TV series is called Black Mirror – it’s a reflective surface for understanding ourselves. AI and machine responses come from data sets, and those involve biases.
It’s a moment to reflect, for instance, on questions of personhood before we even get to anything like artificial general intelligence (AGI) or superintelligence. Should we be civil? If we say rude or sexist things to a female AI assistant, does that matter? These questions come out again and again.
I’m an anthropologist, meaning I study what humans do and think. These big questions are integral to our concept of what AI is. I’ve seen in my work engaging the public and seeing their sometimes hopeful, sometimes fearful responses that this will be a conversation we’ll have for some time yet.
Talking about AI and the future of work gets down to big questions like, what is the human being for? If we define ourselves in terms of what we do and what we produce, we’ll fear replacement.
Ken: I was at an airport buying a train ticket one afternoon. It was quiet, and the woman behind the counter said, “You should have been here yesterday – the automatic ticket machines had recalibrated, giving out wrong tickets. People adjust. Machines don’t.” I wondered if this ability to adjust is part of our relationship with machines.
Beth: It’s interesting how much we adjust to machines. With the airport systems that use facial recognition software, I often have to take off my glasses, change my hair or bob down. We adjust ourselves to be accepted by the system.
You see this in how automation is changing the workplace. There are interviews with facial recognition software involved, so we’re trying to smile more in a video interview. We’re increasingly making changes to fit the machine-based system.
Ken: It suggests an element of trust. Where does trust fit in our relationship with machines?
Beth: Trust is key. We want to believe software that observes our responses in job interviews is fair and neutral, but we have examples where trust is let down.
In the UK in 2020, an algorithm that helped grade student exam papers damaged public trust – it penalized students studying at less high-achieving schools. In my work, I see examples of people trusting too much – they have an image of a superintelligence that doesn’t exist yet. Around the term “blessed by the algorithm,” people feel their YouTube content is promoted because the algorithm decided they should be lucky. They use the language of religious belief.
Society can only trust technology it understands. Digital literacy – understanding what AI is and isn’t – is key to that.
Ken: We tend to understand things better as fiction. It’s a way to get a grip on the world. But I get the feeling fiction’s not a grip anymore, but a stranglehold. Is that fair?
Beth: I enjoy science fiction accounts of AI in their many interpretations, fears and hopes.
One of the hazards is a strict, negative story used too often. I’m a fan of the Terminator film franchise, but I see how dystopian imagery of robot uprisings shapes people’s views of AI. And AI making crucial decisions about our future – whether we get a job or a mortgage, or how we’re treated in hospital – may also be overshadowed by Terminator-like stories.
Ken: And it stops us noticing when AI does good things, like in medicine and traffic control. The robots are already among us, but they don’t usually walk on two legs. They’re more likely to be sorting out your airplane ticket.
Beth: Absolutely. The ‘home help’ robot concept from the 1950s and 60s would move around the house on two legs and perform tasks. It made real home automation invisible – a washing machine doesn’t have that shiny futuristic look.
It’s the same with recent examples like the robot vacuum cleaner – they become an invisible family member.
Ken: If we had the domestic robots imagined from the 1930s to the 1950s, we’d have to rebuild homes – they wouldn’t fit.
Sophia the robot Interview: Sophia the robot answers Stylist’s philosophical questions youtu.be
Sophia the robot answers philosophical questions
Beth: There’s much hype over embodied robots. For some, Hanson’s Sophia robot represents the next step in AI and human evolution too. But what’s Sophia’s commercial use? It’s unclear if she’s useful in the home or office. What dream are we selling with bipedal robot servants that don’t fit into how we use technology today? We’ve made space in our homes for AI assistants – the disembodied voice that answers our questions.
Beth: Look at the voices involved in choosing to make AI assistants female. There are arguments we find female voices more soothing, but for many academics, gendered AI seems an attempt to replicate the mother or wife.
We’ve moved on in society – women can choose to work in or outside the home. For some, that leaves a gap for intellectual and emotional labor. The always-responsive female figure, whether the wife or the mother, is reconstituted in machine form.
Ken: Another thing that parallels the idea of the robot is a child. Robots are becoming smaller. For the sake of argument, a male of average build might seem threatening to many people.
Beth: There’s a move toward making robots cuter and replicating child and animal forms to reduce those threatening associations from science fiction. Think of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator versus the therapeutic robot PARO, modeled on a baby harp seal.
Ken: Is there an element of trying to make work more fun? Perhaps work becomes more like play if you have an AI assistant who helps with the emotional labor?
Beth: Yes. There’s a history of trying to gamify the workplace – developing ‘third space’ options that involve games or places where you can nap. Perhaps how we apply AI is a part of how we make the workplace more enjoyable. If our software chatted back to us, was entertaining and responded to us, it might seem less laborious.
Ken: Going back to emotional labor, programs could soften the edges of work relationships, whether online or in an office – I can imagine something like an ’emotional Roomba’ (robot vacuum cleaner) allowing for moments of interaction.
Beth: We see examples of AI mediating between humans in conversation, like machine learning algorithms suggesting how to respond to emails or warning your tone is too harsh – softening the edges of our interactions at work is a developing space.
Ken: After some emails I’ve had, I see the value in something like that.
Beth: I also saw an application for divorced or divorcing couples helping conversations be more amicable for the benefit of any children. A machine learning algorithm warns you things like, perhaps you’re being a bit sarcastic.
Ken: I’m scared of an algorithm that understands sarcasm. That will be the end of humanity.
Ken: What thought about AI and the future of work would you like to share?
Beth: I’d like people to consider how much we should change our behavior around AI in the workplace. People don’t normally interact in purely rational ways. If we curtail that normal human messiness, we’re not anthropomorphizing AI but robo-morphizing humans. If we make ourselves smile more to do well in an interview with facial recognition software, we limit ourselves. Although we might see AI as a human simulation, do we become a human simulation in response to AI?
Renan pushes the art of filmmaking to the edge in his environmental documentaries, combining extreme expeditions with raw landscapes, outstanding drone footage and visual storytelling. Often collaborating with spouse and fellow director Taylor Rees, Renan’s approach is the stuff of filmmaking dreams.
Renan Ozturk’s films
Drawn to earth’s most demanding environments, Renan Ozturk focuses on human connection with the natural world. His use of strong visual identity draws on his experience as a landscape painter and adventurer, bringing out nature’s best alongside compelling human stories.
Denali is North America’s highest mountain peak, in Alaska, US. In one of Ozturk’s first films, a diverse team of athletes assembled by The North Face take on this behemoth, one of the biggest challenges on Earth.
This philosophical portrait of the human mind asks, how do we balance risk with reward? Renan teams up with creators of award-winning film All.I.Can for an epic insight into the quests of the world’s greatest mountain sport athletes. Expect stunning footage and sporting extremes.
In the world of big-wall climbing, Shark’s Fin on India’s Meru Peak is the holy grail – 4,000 feet (1,200 meters) of sheer deadliness, traversed and failed by elite climbers. Dwindling supplies, snowstorms and sub-zero temperatures make for some tale.
Renan’s first Everest climbing and filming trip is one for the history books. The precision of beauty of Sherpa’s camera angles, achieved in such extreme places, is the stuff of wonder.
Renan’s dazzling camera work complements this is a stunning ode to mountains, a collaboration between Australian Chamber Orchestra and BAFTA-nominated director Jennifer Peedom. Mountain examines the beauty of wild landscapes and our fascination with conquering them.
It’s steep, misty and packed with psychoactive honey only locals know how to handle. Renan and his team joins the indigenous Kirat Kulung people as they scale deadly cliffs for an emotional final honey harvest.
When the guardian of an almost unreachable archipelago in the Far East of Russia, the Kuril Islands, hitches a ride with Renan and his team, no one expected the result. The team, including director Taylor Rees, set out to make a classic adventure story, but got something even more powerful.
The first robotic arms introduced to car assembly lines in the 1960s had the same ‘reach’ as a human worker. They did the same tasks in the same space. Even then, futurists predicted machines would change the world more with their information processing power than by performing manual tasks.
Listen to the full Fast Forward episode 5 on your future robot colleagues
Turning machine empathy to our advantage
Dr Beth Singler, artificial intelligence research fellow at University of Cambridge, points to automation in the workplace revolving around replacing human ‘knowledge labor’ as much as physical labor. “Artificial intelligence (AI) assistants do tasks for you, but in an emotionally accessible way – with pleasantries and civility.”
Dr. Singler points to discussions about whether we should be civil back to AI assistants, like Alexa or Siri. “These questions are so integral to our conception of what AI is and could be that you can’t have a conversation about AI without them coming up. It all gets down to philosophical questions of ‘what is the human being for?'” But Dr. Singler also gives thought-provoking examples of good uses of AI’s ability to show humanlike traits while being seen as neutral.
Robot pizza delivery goes further thank you’d think
If in real life we accept machines in ways we wouldn’t accept humans, Emm says we may “share information or give access we shouldn’t.”
Robot ethical self-evolution
One person thinking about how robots could improve our relationship with both security and ethics is Alan Winfield, professor of robot ethics in the Bristol Robotics Lab. He believes robots should include technology that gives a data trail to understand contributing factors when they make a bad decision like causing an accident – an ‘ethical black box,’ like a flight data recorder.
Eventually robots could use the data to self-evolve, he believes – improving on their next generation without the human decision-making past generations used to domesticate animals and breed higher yielding crops. Listen to Fast Forward episode 5 to hear Professor Winfield explain his mind-blowing vision and how four universities are working to make it happen.
While the internet is not necessarily reliable for finding truth, are humans capable of sorting machines from other humans, let alone truth from falsehood? Every day, machine learning is hotting up. What does it all mean?
There was a time when many believed the ever-expanding internet would mean a new era where facts were king – people could easily check if what they’d been told was accurate. The reality couldn’t be further from this utopian vision. In Fast Forward episode 4, Ken Hollings and his guests talk about why the internet is full of lies and why machines are more like us than we know.
Trolls from the 1990s
Eric Drass aka Shardcore, an artist known for exploring technology themes, says anonymity is a crucial factor. Back in the 90s few people used their real name online, and some found ‘fun’ in displaying views that would shock people. From the safety of a pseudonym, it felt like there were no real consequences. Today’s online environment, Drass believes, stems from that time.
Drass also thinks it’s become easy to use the visual hallmarks of respectability, contributing to the ease of spreading falsehoods. “I could set up a website that looks like a legitimate news source in a morning and start publishing stories about whatever I want. To a casual observer, it would look legitimate.”
Believing in the humanity of bots
It seems we’re easily fooled when we want to be. The Turing Test is a test for machine intelligence devised by early computer programmer and code breaker Alan Turing. It suggests a machine is intelligent if it can lie convincingly. But should we value being able to lie, when humans are so easily hoodwinked?
When ‘she’ was invented in 1966, people felt therapeutic chatbot ELIZA was so real and empathetic some asked to be left alone with her: See if ELIZA feels real to you. All the bot does is follow established therapeutic prompts ‘learned’ from a textbook.
Kaspersky Security Researcher David Emm says it’s our tendency to believe that cybercriminals often exploit. As we’re becoming used to chatbots as ‘real’ as ELIZA on business websites, we need to stay alert to whether what the bot is asking us for is right in the context. Being asked for personal information like bank details, date of birth and so forth should trigger us to consider how we know who we’re talking to.
Could machines identify vulnerabilities in us we don’t know?
If we expect it to become truly and independently intelligent, a machine has to learn on its own terms how to fool us effectively. Could gamification level up machine intelligence? Generative Adversarial Network (GAN) does just that – two neural networks play against each other to find matching variants for a data set.
Technology writer and artist James Bridle has concerns. “You set two models against one another, and that relationship can be generative or totally adversarial, where one is trying to fool or compete against the other. It’s incredibly powerful. I think there’s something concerning about it being our dominant training model.”
Bridle explains how Facebook tried to train GAN in bargaining and pitted it against humans. When you listen to this episode, you’ll be amazed to hear about the skills and tactics the machines taught themselves. These have big implications for future human-machine relationships, and make you wonder who’ll take charge.
The Olympic Games are the most inspiring sporting events of our time, but they’re more than gold and glamor. To celebrate International Olympic Day and the approach of Japan 2020, we list the most mysterious, inspiring and uncompromising Olympics-themed documentaries you’ll ever see.
Where will the Olypmics take you?
To the harsh extremities of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, in the midst of a cyberattack? Into the aspiring lives of Olympic athletes? Or into the midst of one of the Olympics’ biggest doping scandals? To celebrate the world’s most inspiring sporting competition, we’ve compiled a list of Olympics-themed documentaries that will have you on the edge of your seat
When Bryan Fogel set out to make a documentary about doping in sports, it’s fair to say even he didn’t imagine how incredible his findings would be. On his journey, Fogel is put in touch with the head of an anti-Russian doping program, who soon becomes an international whistleblower harboring shocking information about the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games.
Three American table tennis proteges have their sights set on the ultimate prize – the 2012 Summer Olympics. Top Spin is a fascinating and well-crafted look at adolescent life and the pressure of elite sports.
How much do you know about the 1976 US Women’s Olympic relay swim team? This is your chance to brush up on their incredible story, at the highest level competing against opposition using performance-enhancing drugs.
Okay, so this one’s in black and white, just to manage your expectations. But what it lacks in VFX and million-dollar budgets, it makes up for in raw cinematographic pleasure. This is a real gem from director Leni Riefenstahl, celebrating the human form through modern Olympians.
The man, the legend. A rare and insightful look into the world of Usain Bolt as he prepares for the 2016 Rio Olympics, where he attempts to make history by winning the 100m and 200m races for a record third time.
The story of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics cyberattack in Korea will most likely amaze you. This three-part series looks at the background to the mysterious Pyeongchang cyberattack, the Olympics IT team’s stunning response and why it was so hard (and so risky) to find out who did it.
Relationships between athletes and coaches can be, well, intense. None perhaps more so than the connection between record-breaking runner Steven Prefontaine and his coach Bill Bowerman. After qualifying for the 1972 Munich Olympics, the two start a unique and tear-jerking journey. No spoiler alerts here.
This documentary follows the close bond between American swimmers Missy Franklin and Kara Lynn Joyce as they prepared to compete in the 2012 Summer Olympics. As Franklin was younger, she looked up to Joyce as a role model, while Joyce found herself inspired by Franklin’s drive, and together, they became an unstoppable force.
20 years of footage, one intense rivalry that defines an era. The Crash Reel is an up-close and personal look at the relationship between two snowboarding titans, Kevin Pearce and Shaun White, as they compete at the 2010 Winter Olympics. Pearce suffered a traumatic brain injury before the games but still decided to continue. Here’s what unfolded.
And the gold medal goes to…
You don’t need to be fighting fit to be among the action of these Olympic features. Which unbeatable Olympic-themed documentaries have we missed? Share your recs on our Twitter and Facebook. On your marks, get set, go!
Planning how cities will grow and change means thinking way ahead. Technology is a huge driver – fridges, cars and of course, digital infrastructure have all revolutionized how we live. And then COVID-19 brought a rapid, sudden shift to remote work. Ken Hollings’ guests in Fast Forward audio documentary episode 3 discuss our changing physical, social and technological cities.
Should the physical rely on the digital?
Shoshanna Saxe, Professor of civil and mineral engineering at University of Toronto says, “For the last couple of generations in high-income countries, technology has done amazing things.” But also, “You can’t found a city on tech. You have to have good solid infrastructure that lasts.”
She warns of the risks of physical infrastructure – roads, buildings and so forth – relying on the city’s digital infrastructure. What happened when companies were forced to shift fast to a work-from-home model might suggest some reasons why.
Emm also notes that when it comes to embedding security into our ways of thinking about digital infrastructure, we’re not there yet. “Security needs to be a cultural thing rather than a training exercise.”
Digital suburban disparity
Single-dwelling, grassy suburbs that spread like wildfire along city fringes from the late 1940s forged a new digital landscape. People expected entertainment, news and conversations to come to them in their homes. Now COVID-19 has brought a kind of digital suburbia to the inner city, as human interaction on commutes and in offices could even approach obsolescence.
Suburbia has always evoked the privilege of the few. Architect and filmmaker Sarah Akigbogun, vice chair of Women in Architecture and a Royal Institute of British Architects council member, thinks our ways of working and living are built for inequality. “If you delve into the history of architecture, it’s linked to the idea and proportions of a white male body. The voices of people of color are missing from the conversation around how we make our cities.”
Akigbogun sees the disparity reflected in digital access. “At the moment we talk about the digital divide. With the pandemic it’s become apparent there’s a huge disparity in people’s access to technology.” She makes some fascinating predictions for how cities will be shaped by the impacts of COVID-19’s arrival at this moment in technology. It might just be good news for those suburbia shut out.
Food retail has always been an earlier adopter of transforming technologies. As most of us are open to anything that makes the everyday more fun and interesting, supermarkets are ideal places to experiment with innovative tech. Which unexpected technological items will we see next in the bagging area? Fast Forward audio doc episode 2 explores the aisles.
Supermarkets of the tech revolution
Visiting the supermarket isn’t as mundane as it might seem, suggests broadcaster and cultural theorist Ken Hollings, in the second episode of our audio documentary series Fast Forward, Scan purchase for maximum score. We got used to barcodes, QR-codes and interactive in-store experiences with little fuss, so what’s next?
Design researcher Benjamin Parry imagines the supermarket experience of the future. Today’s supermarkets are relatively interchangeable, but Parry believes future-focused stores have a lot to play for. In the episode, he describes the innovative way a Korean supermarket blended shopping with commuting.
But the big wins, says Parry, may be in ethical and sustainable shopping. “People want to make more ethical choices, but they don’t know how. If they can shop with a supermarket that helps them make those decisions, it gives the retailer an edge over competitors.”
Are checkout operators history?
It started with our suspicious then suddenly enthusiastic acceptance of self-checkout, which morphed into ‘frictionless stores’ like Amazon Go, where registered customers walk out the door with their goods. Will we see the end of the supermarket workforce as we know it?
Kaspersky Security researcher David Emm has a new angle on the technological unemployment debate: How sure are we that processes replacing humans are secure?
While the challenges of validating ethical claims shouldn’t be sniffed at, when it comes to replicating the experience of squeezing a lettuce or tomato for freshness, the digital space has its work cut out.
Italian architect, engineer and director of MIT’s Senseable City Lab research group Carlo Ratti believes nothing less than enjoyment will be at the heart of future shopping experiences. Cutting-edge supermarkets are zeroing in on the stories people associate with their food and shopping experience.
“During lockdown the supermarket was one of the few places you could go and be around other people. If you need toilet paper, say “Alexa, get new toilet paper,” and it will be delivered the next day. But for things with an experiential social component, the supermarket has an important role.”
Ratti believes the advantages of living in towns and cities depend on it too. He goes into detail in the podcast, and his reasons might come as a surprise.
Inventor of the audiocassette Lou Ottens’ death at age 94 in early 2021 gave media and technology fans everywhere a chance to stop and think. In the age of Musks and Zuckerbergs, it’s easy to forget how much Ottens changed the game. New audio series Fast Forward explores how we can explore technology’s future by looking to the past.
From the pocket of the world
Before the audiocassette, the home and studio audio standard was heavy, bulky and easily damaged open-reel tape. Ottens began with the idea of something conveniently carried, cutting a piece of wood to the size of his pocket as a template.
When Phillips introduced the audiocassette to market in 1963, it was a tiny sound revolution – light and compact, it made data transportable and accessible in ways never before possible. And it traveled everywhere from car dashboards to zero-gravity space vehicles.
Small sounds goes big
From the 80s, cassette players were used to load software and games onto early home computers and record telephone messages. When the Sony Walkman appeared in 1977 – a cassette player small and light enough to be worn clipped to a belt – along with longer life batteries, it took audiocassettes further still. Before cassettes receded into obsolescence around the late 1990s, the penetration of Lou Ottens’ innovation was total.
But the audiocassette stayed influential. Ottens also helped develop the Compact Disc, which stored more and lasted longer. But its use and distribution patterns followed those established by its predecessor, the cassette. Encrypting data onto CDs and later flash USB drives followed similar patterns, from storing and erasing files to transport and distribution as ‘removable memory.’
The cassette’s influence didn’t end there. Symbols on PlayStation, Xbox and other game controllers mimic those introduced with the audiocassette. In fact, the controls on almost all audio-visual players, from smartphones to professional editing software, share those the audiocassette used first: A right-pointing triangle for play, double triangles for fast forward and rewind and parallel vertical bars for pause.
Of all the cassette’s symbolic introductions, pause is the most welcome at times of rapid, disruptive innovation. Technology-led progress suggests we must track the latest innovations, the newest platforms, the boldest business models without pause – it’s all fast forward until we don’t where we are anymore. That’s when we need to press pause – maybe even rewind.
Past lessons invaluable for future success
Such a frantic pace can distract us from learning from the past. The influence of the audiocassette, far beyond its apparent obsolescence, is a case in point.
Our new Tomorrow Unlocked audio documentary series Fast Forward is devoted to examining trends from the recent past shaping today’s technology. It explores practical lessons that might otherwise have been lost in our rapid forward momentum.
Clayton M Christensen and Joseph Bower coined the term ‘disruptive’ to describe game-changing technologies in their 1995 article, Disruptive technologies: Catching the wave. Although ‘disruptive’ has since been overused, Bower and Christensen first identified the idea of disruptive technologies by taking the long view of innovation’s history.
Overuse tends to stretch meaning to the point where the original definition is all but lost. Disruptive technologies, often coming from outside an existing system of established firms and products, create new markets that eventually displace that system.
The current rush to disrupt in tech industries condemns customers to live in a ‘beta’ universe where bugs become features. But as entrepreneur Andy Budd observed in a recent blog post, “Without a clear picture of what you’re building, it’s almost impossible to predict problems. We’re encouraged to learn about the future not by thinking, imagining or researching outcomes, but by launching products and learning from the results.”
The law of unintended consequences governs the ‘beta’ universe. Taking the long view can help swing those consequences from negative to positive. It’s unlikely Lou Ottens foresaw the deep, long-term impact of the audiocassette while cutting that block of wood to fit in his pocket.
Ottens was just five in 1926 when Thomas Edison died. Edison invented the phonograph, which made mechanical sound recording and playback possible for the first time.
During his life, Edison broke a lot of things. He first tried to market the phonograph by putting it inside a doll that recited nursery rhymes and wished its owner a happy Christmas. The doll was a dismal failure, withdrawn from shelves after most were unsold or returned by disturbed customers.
For Edison, trial and error were part of the process, to be repeated until the product was ready for the public. His customers didn’t want a talking doll, but they did want to hear a famous tenor like Enrico Caruso in their parlors.
“I have not failed,” Edison said about his repeated setbacks while inventing the lightbulb. “I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Sometimes the long view still offers the best lessons.
Our journey into the future of technology begins with the past. Writer and cultural theorist Ken Hollings guides this 6-episode audio series by Tomorrow Unlocked.
The past is the future
The pace of technological change is dizzying. We herald the newness of each platform, software and machine. In this first episode of our new audio series Fast Forward, broadcaster and cultural theorist Ken Hollings suggests it’s a good time to stop running around the labyrinth and find our way by retracing our steps. The past tells all about the present, and the future.
Humanity stays on track, to a fault
In this episode of Fast Forward, writer, data engineer and Associate Professor of English at University of Michigan, Tung-Hui Hu, points to the phenomenon of path tendency: The way new infrastructure tends to follow the paths of older infrastructure. His bookPrehistory of the Cloud saw him looking deeply into the cloud’s origins. It seems fiber optic cables trace the paths of telegraph cables, which followed railways. And the problems of these past forms of communication and travel repeat themselves in cloud quirks and bottlenecks.
So how do we do better? “One of the biggest problems is the idea that technology is the solution to technology’s problems: Just iterate, and get this next version of technology to fix things. What we really need is someone to think about its context: Where it exists in history, how it exists with culture,” says Tung-Hui Hu.
Emm says, “People thinking about what they do with technology before they dispose of it is really, really important. Criminals are very interested in the data businesses store, which is why we see data breaches. They’re trying to capture sensitive information.”
Tending the digital garden
MIT Technology Review’s Senior Reporter Tanya Basu suggests a new way of thinking about our digital lives might help us better control personal information online, avoid social media back-biting and, well, grow – a digital garden.
“A lot of people building these digital gardens are very interested in reshaping what we accept as normal when it comes to engaging online,” says Tanya.
This budding trend looks set to blossom, but if you’re unclear what a digital garden even is, Tanya’s description on Fast Forward is second to none, so put your ear to the rabbit hole and you’ll probably find yourself going all the way down.