‘What to do when machines do everything’ by Malcolm Frank, Paul Roehrig and Ben Pring

There are plenty of predictions out there for what a future world filled with artificially intelligent machines might look like, from utopian visions of technological miracles and marvels, to dystopian predictions of man enslaved by robotics. In a world where such systems are becoming the norm, how do these visions relate to reality?

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Last week, I was struggling with a problem with my hard drive when a member of IT came over to help. He saw a book, ‘What to Do When Machines Do Everything’, lying on my desk and smiled. “What will we do?” he asked, “go on holiday!” I countered this argument quite quickly – “but you won’t have a job, how will you afford to go on holiday?” I asked. “When machines do everything, everything will be free,” he assured me.

It’s a nice thought, but perhaps a little optimistic.

Whatever your opinion on artificial intelligence and automated machinery, there is no doubt that these products and systems are now a reality. The last few years have seen many intelligent systems escape from the experimental cages of the past, outgrow industrial testing labs, and enter the world of work. For some, that’s exciting, for others terrifying, but for all, it’s inevitable. This new publication from Wiley, written by thought leaders from IT services company Cognizant, takes a closer look at the rise of intelligent machinery and robotics within the industrial sector, to analyse how such systems are revolutionising the world of work, and how businesses and industries can ensure they make the most of the situation.

As leaders of Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work, authors Malcolm Frank, Paul Roehrig and Ben Pring are well placed to discuss this subject. After three years of intense research, and no doubt a little bit of philosophical head-scratching, they have produced a book for thought leaders and business owners at all levels, which serves as an action plan for success in the new era of industrial production. This isn’t a look at what might happen in the next 25 years, they assure the reader, but rather an in-depth look at what will happen in the next five. It’s a book for those who want to make the most of the digital revolution, to help them to survive and thrive in a world where machines do everything.

According to the authors, we are living in a time of the ‘know-it-all’ business – brought on by systems of intelligence or ‘thinking machines’ – in which leaders and managers can and should have a continuous awareness of what is going on in the company’s operation. The primary means of the digital industrial revolution is data, a resource that is cheap to gather, cheap to distribute, infinite, unique, exponentially valuable, and as such far superior to those that came before. Data has the potential to transform workplaces and increase productivity, but must be handled carefully.

With this in mind, the authors encourage industry leaders to think practically. While it is OK to take inspiration from the Facebooks, Amazons, Netflixes and Googles of the world, it is important to remember the role of industry as fundamentally different from those companies born of the digital revolution. Complete digitalisation is an impossibility within industry, a sector which will always require processes, systems and factory floors. The key to success is in careful blending of digital and industrial.

Taken at face value, ‘What to Do When Machines do Everything’ is a helpful ‘how to’ guide to succeed in a world of automation, intelligent systems and robotics, which outlines what you should do, why, and what will happen if you don’t.

According to the authors, the good news, or perhaps bad news where my friendly IT technician is concerned, is that when machines do everything, there will still be plenty for us humble humans to do.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine

 

‘To Pixar and Beyond: My Unlikely Journey with Steve Jobs to Make Entertainment History’ by Lawrence Levy

 

The feature films churned out by Hollywood studios today are a far cry from the pioneering motion pictures of the late 19th century. Technology is often highlighted as a key driver for innovation and in no sector is this more evident than in entertainment. Whether you want to look at improvements in video-capture devices, or changing film-editing processes and software capabilities, developments across film and entertainment are largely driven by developments in technology.

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The story related in ‘To Pixar and Beyond’ is a perfect example of the relationship between technology and innovation. While the majority of people will have heard of Pixar, and know of the company’s wide success in the film industry, few may be aware of its surprisingly humble origins. Written by Lawrence Levy, the former chief financial officer of Pixar, this book tells the tale of how a tiny, struggling start-up went on to revolutionise the animated film industry.

The story begins with Levy, a Harvard-trained lawyer and Silicon Valley executive, receiving an unexpected phone call from Apple founder Steve Jobs attempting to persuade him to join his latest venture, which at that point was on the verge of failure. This small, little-known software-development firm had begun creating computer-animated short films to advertise its work, and was now working towards creating the first ever computer animated feature film – a family-friendly adventure featuring toys that come to life. Levy recalls being struck by an odd mix of excitement and scepticism at hearing Pixar’s story, feelings that were all the more confused by a visit to the company’s dingy headquarters next to an oil refinery in Richmond Point, San Francisco.

Levy compares Pixar to the native Ohlone tribe, who roamed the land where Silicon Valley resides long before business took ownership of the area. Traditions capable of sustaining a tribe for thousands of years had been swept away by a wave of innovation. In the modern day, Levy says, those who can’t keep up with progress go the same way, becoming artefacts left behind. Outwardly Pixar had the appearance of a company that could be easily outstripped by its competitors, but among the rickety armchairs and stained ceiling tiles was a company that harboured a wealth of creative talent.

Of course, we know how the story pans out. There will be few people who have not heard of the first film to emerge from Pixar’s humble offices. In fact, ‘Toy Story’, as it came to be called, was not just successful, it went on to be the biggest film of 1995 – a feat virtually unheard of in the animated film world – and, at the time, became the third biggest grossing animated film of all time. A generation of millennials have now grown up alongside Toy Story’s beloved characters Buzz and Woody and will no doubt have shed a tear when the final film in the franchise was released in 2010.

Regardless of what you know about Pixar’s journey and subsequent success, though, Levy manages to make the story legitimately exciting. Joining the Pixar team was a huge decision, but this was really just the beginning. Once on board Levy and Jobs had a mountain to climb, in committing to transform Pixar into a company focused solely on animated feature films, and leaving behind the software sales and other piecemeal activites, which just barely kept the corporation afloat.

This book, like Pixar’s story, is truly remarkable. At times it reads like a novel, but informs like a documentary, advises like a self-help guide and inspires like any unexpected success story. Above all, the story is inspirational and should serve as encouragement for people wanting to innovate. Pixar’s story is rare, but not impossible. Innovation is out there, waiting to be discovered. As Levy says, creativity is a “dance on the precipice of failure”. There are no shortcuts, no formulas and no well-worn paths to victory, but the results speak for themselves.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine

‘Atari Age: The Emergence of Video Games in America’ by Michael Z Newman

A fascinating historical analysis of the emergence and development of video games in America.

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Retro video games have developed a real cult following over the years. In a time when on-screen graphics are frighteningly real, the simple, blocky pictures and monotonic themes speak of an era when consoles, and times, were simpler. Or were they?

Each time a Space Invaders remake is announced, there are more than a few people who insist on focusing on the negative side of our digital friends. In Atari Age, author Michael Z Newman looks at the impact of early video games on the American culture they grew from, as well as their effects, both positive and negative, on society. The history unveiled by Newman is remarkably complex – an evolution in content, design and public opinion.

The story begins in penny arcades, where leather-capped youths lined up for the likes of the fortune teller and peep show, before progressing swiftly along to the days of pinball’s reign. The emergence of video games and their eventual move into the American home, Newman says, was a process of evolution which began within the arcade.

While penny arcades and pinball soon fell by the wayside, video arcades gained popularity, evolving from a media seen as unreliable, due to their liability to break down and difficulty to fix, to one which inspired, excited and enthused American youths. Indeed, arcade games became such an important aspect of popular culture that, during the height of the game’s popularity, a single establishment in Piccadilly Circus is said to have had 10 Space Invaders machines all in a row and no doubt constantly in use.

To explain their popularity, Neman points to the adaptive nature of the video game. Unlike pinball, a video game gets harder as a player gets better, and thereby encourages greater investment. Indeed, the medium itself continued to adapt to the point where it soon outgrew arcades, a feat that pinball and penny slots never achieved, and made its home right in the heart of the American family. With the release of the Magnavox Odyssey and Pong and 1972, the family television became the new arcade.

As video games evolved, so too did public opinion. Whereas games seem to have developed almost naturally, changes in societal understanding have been far more complicated. The Magnavox Odyssey was originally seen as a device for turning the TV in a participatory experience, but this idea was quickly joined by fears that spending too much time playing games could be harmful. This is a swing we have continued to experience today, as games have evolved to be more ‘active’, but still bear the yoke of technological fear.

Using original marketing and advertising materials, Newman weaves an image of a two-way development of video games and public opinion. The book highlights the ever-changing face of media in the eyes of the American public, as it moved from an enjoyable medium, to something to fear, and back again. Newman’s technological timeline says as much about the society that video games emerged in as it does about power of the medium itself.

There is something nostalgic – or is it regretful – about this book, as though you are viewing the past through sepia-tinted glasses. The pages conjure up images of American families huddled round the comforting glow of the TV, or, perhaps the dusty grey screens editorialised in George Orwell’s 1984.

This is a book for those fascinated by sociological viewpoints of American society, but will likely sit well with fans of retro video games, if only for the novelty of 1970s gaming advertorial.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine

Book review: ‘The Fight for Beauty: Our Path to a Better Future’ by Fiona Reynolds

An enlightening journey through history’s many attempts to secure and protect what is beautiful in the world.

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Beauty is a complicated subject. We all know what it is, but as time goes by we become less comfortable with speaking about it, or so says author Fiona Reynolds in this stunning new publication from Oneworld.

Describing beauty of the natural world has become something sacred and very personal, where once it ran free within government documentation and legal literature, it is now replaced by more clinical attempts of ‘protecting biodiversity’ and ‘conserving habitats’. So much is the case that today, even while striving to protect natural beauty with climate change legislation and environmental protection orders, we do more than ever to ignore it.

Heeding the words of John Ruskin in the 19th century, Reynolds highlights the ever increasing drive for economic growth and desire for material possession in modern times. “Wherever I look of travel in England or abroad,” wrote Ruskin. “I see that men, wherever they can reach, destroy all beauty. They seem to have no other desire or hope but to have large house and to be able to move fast.” How much has changed since this time?

It reminds me of a recent news story about a real estate tycoon in the US who built the most expensive house to ever go on the market. The house is available for $250 million and comes complete with its own private cinema, massage parlour and luxury cars. What was the aim of this dwelling? To tap into the niche, super wealthy market of people willing to spend a quarter of a million dollars on a yacht, but who barely surpass $10 million when it comes to housing. A fantastic business venture if ever there was one – build a man a dream house and his friends will surely want one too – but it doesn’t do much to inspire hope in a future where consumerism isn’t everything.

Reynolds believes this state of economic affairs – where people strive for bigger and better possessions, and only things of monetary value have any real worth – makes it more difficult than ever to protect what matters, including the environment and our future.

In The Fight for Beauty: Our Path to a Better Future Reynolds collects words and aspirations of figures past and present who all endeavoured to achieve one thing: protection of the Earth and conservation of its natural beauty. The book examines ideas about nature, farming and urbanisation, explores mountain sides, secluded woodlands and protected heather-rich moorland, and delves into romantic thoughts and war poetry. Beginning with the impassioned minds of friends behind the Kyrle Society of the 19th century, whose calls for environmental protection gave way to the modern National Trust, Reynolds shows how definitions of beauty have been rearranged and reconsidered throughout history, before becoming somewhat lost within the fast-paced consumerist lifestyles of modern day.

The Fight for Beauty is at once intriguing, fascinating and incredibly moving. What could serve as an interesting account of the importance of the countryside throughout history is, on a much deeper level, a fervent call-to-arms to protect what, once gone, is gone forever. For Reynolds at least, inspiration from the past and from nature itself could provide an alternative path forward from human development, one where beauty is not forgotten.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine.

‘Science Fiction by Scientists: An Anthology of Short Stories’ edited by Michael Brotherton

Science and science fiction may seem like two sides of the same coin, but much of the genre gracing bookshelves and cinemas today is actually missing an integral piece of the puzzle – the ‘science’.

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Without science, says Michael Brotherton, sci-fi is little more than a western set in space, or a fantasy set in the future. As a lover of all things scientific and a trained astrophysicist, Brotherton characterises science fiction as providing a glimpse into amazing futures not outside the realms of possibility, or terrible and grotesque scenarios that we should try to avoid.

It may not surprise you to learn that many renowned sci-fi authors were trained in science – Isaac Asimov had a PhD in biochemistry, and Arthur C Clarke was known for his essays on space travel. Perhaps it is the accuracy, or indeed the believability of their fiction, the notion that these situations are not outside the realms of possibility, that makes their work so profound.

As editor of ‘Science Fiction by Scientists’, Brotherton introduces the latest generation of science-trained sci-fi writers, among them current researchers pursuing a love of fiction on the side, retired experts, or those who have set aside prosperous careers to write full time.

In ‘Down and Out’ by Ken Wharton, the reader meets Ogby, a strange, spiderlike creature living within the nutrient-rich oceans of a mysterious, ice-​encrusted land, with odd perceptions of gravity, sinking to the bottom of her habitat by filling one of her many gaseous bladders with air.

In ‘Supernova Rhythm’, Andrew Fraknoi writes of an optimistic young research scientist who discovers a strange pattern of exploding stars in galaxy NGC 6946, and so finds that there may be life forms billions of years ahead of us developmentally, whose actions we cannot possibly understand.

Alongside tales of obscure lands, terrifying futures and pending zombie apocalypses, the authors have taken time to explain a little of the science behind the sci-fi, unveiling origins of the tales and shedding some light on their motivation. In this way, we learn that Obgy is an alien lifeform from Europa, the ice moon of Jupiter, who scuttles upside-down upon the layers of ice enclosing the moon’s subterranean ocean; that a new musical piece created by a group of astronomers uses notes supplied by supernovae in far-off galaxies and that future scientists could theoretically sequence the DNA of hundreds of species of animals to be contained, and later deployed, within a single piece of fruit.

‘Science Fiction by Scientists’ is an interesting and intriguing anthology of short stories, which is sure to set the reader’s mind in motion a little better than the average collection of sci-fi shorts. Leisure is combined with learning to leave not just a sense of wonder and amusement, but also the desire to find out a little more about each author’s particular field.

For those interested in exploring further, a more challenging read comes in the form of ‘Murder on the Einstein Express and Other Stories’, also from Springer. This short anthology by assistant professor in mathematics and physics Harun Šiljak, touches on the realms of the theoretical, physical and computational to create obscure tales, including an Alice in Wonderland-type adventure set within the realms of mathematical analysis.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine

‘The End of Ownership’ by Aaron Perzanowski and Jason Schultz

If you buy a book at the book shop, you own it, and are free to do exactly as you wish with it. You might be surprised to hear that the same is not true of ebooks and other downloaded media. In fact, as Aaron Personowski and Jason Schultz discuss, the digital world is an incredibly complicated place when it comes to ownership.

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Chances are if you own an iPod, Kindle or even a desktop or laptop you are no stranger to the world of the digital download. It is becoming more and more common to simply pay for a digital copy of a song, book or film, rather than worrying about cumbersome physical objects. Who even has time to wait for an Amazon delivery these days, anyway? The digital download has done wonders for the instant gratification of consumers, but at what cost? Like it or not, each time you click ‘pay now’ on a digital purchase, you are entering a new and confusing world, rife with rules, regimes and regulations that restrict how you interact with your downloads.

Authors Aaron Perzanowski and Jason Schultz use their book to delve into the complex, jargon-ridden world of the rights of digital consumers, to uncover the mystery of whether we can really be considered ‘owners’ of our digitalia. As the owner of a physical object you enjoy certain freedoms; if you have a collection of print books, you are free to annotate them, modify them, or even destroy them if you want to. The same however, cannot be said to the ‘owners’ of downloaded goods.

Every time you buy an ebook from Amazon or a song from iTunes you sign an end-user licence agreement (EULA) – let’s be honest, you have probably never read it – the contents of which are far removed from the freedom we enjoy with physical ownership. Consumers do not actually own digital purchases, they license them and have the permission to read, listen to, play, or watch them. Slightly more worrying is the fact that the company providing the software used to access these files effectively has control over a user’s digital library.

Here’s an interesting case. In July 2009 Amazon remotely, and without warning, wiped (irony of ironies) George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and ‘Animal Farm’ from all Kindle ereaders, following a dispute with the publishers.

Small fry, perhaps? Permissible collateral damage? Well, what happens when devices, or corporations, become obsolete? That’s what happened to HDGIANTS Inc, a former distributor of high-quality audio and video files. When it went bankrupt, its servers were switched off, and with that, portions of the digital libraries of thousands of paying customers evaporated.

So how content should consumers be with their content? A bookshop cannot, as Schultz and Perzanowski point out, creep into your house in the middle of the night and reclaim the contents of your physical shelves – so why can digital providers? Is it fair that book lovers and audiophiles are charged prices akin to a physical copy for a digital download that is completely at the mercy of publishers and licensers? What is the benefit to the consumer of opting for digital files? Are the benefits of reducing waste and getting instant gratification really worth it?

‘The End of Ownership’ presents the confusing world of the digital consumer in wonderfully accessible prose, replacing hideous jargon with the simplest of analogies, from thieving bookshops to the goblins from Harry Potter. It will answer the questions you have regarding digital ownership, and it’s inevitable that more than a few of them have never even crossed your mind.

In an increasingly complex world, plagued by unreadable (certainly unread) terms and conditions, it is more than a little refreshing to have something explained in good, plain English.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine.

The Power – Naomi Alderman

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Equality, prosperity and power are just some of the aims of feminists past and present – but what would a world controlled by women actually look like? In her fourth novel, author Naomi Alderman inverts traditional gender roles to create a world where women quite literally hold all the power and men tremble at their feet.

Love it or hate it, utopian and dystopian fiction has a lot to say about how people live their lives and the desires, dreams and fears that lurk under the covers of society. Dystopic works throughout the 20th century have explored totalitarian states, brainwashing, societal complacency and overpopulation. They reflect societal fears of a future in which too much power has been lost to the state, through the wonderful world of science fiction.

This genre suits feminist complaints by questioning the conventional exercise of power between the sexes, often delving into frustrations of women in a patriarchal society. Previous works explored the prospect of women-led civilisations in which gender roles are reversed or worlds where women live alone, having somehow discovered the secret to asexual reproduction.

There is a reason you don’t get many all-male utopias, but I’ve often wondered why there aren’t more novels that explore what a world would be like where women not only ruled, but ruled with power. So many science-fiction novels strived to illuminate societal inequality through exaggeration and role reversal, or the creation of purer, softer societies where women rule each other with soft hands, but I have yet to come across a book which inverts the status to devastating effect.

‘The Power’ is just such a novel.

Naomi Alderman’s latest novel is a manuscript written 5,000 years in the future, documenting the rising power of a female elite. The story begins with the ‘Day of the Girls’, when teenage girls across the world wake with a strange new power. It starts as a subtle throbbing sensation between the collarbones and crackles across the skin, filling the air with electrostatic discharge and the smell of rain and rotten fruit, before emerging as a spark of light from the tips of the fingers.

What would the world look like if men were afraid of women rather than women being frightened of men?

A slight warning, while not fully divulged in this review, the book contains one or two themes that some readers might find disturbing.

Through the guise of a fictional future researcher, Alderman follows the stories of four characters and how they are affected as the world begins to change. We meet Roxy, a tough, foul-mouthed daughter of a London crime lord who is out to seek revenge; Allie, a dual-heritage girl from Jacksonville who, having suffered unspeakable abuse at the hands of her foster father, rebrands herself as charismatic faith-leader Mother Eve; Margot, the aspiring New England Governor along with her confused daughter Jocelyn; and Tunde, a plucky Nigerian journalist who strives to uncover the ugly truth behind the rising female power.

‘Men have evolved to be strong worker homestead-keepers, while women – with babies to protect from harm – have had to become aggressive and violent.’

A few videos emerge across social media platforms showing girls seemingly electrocuting men with their hands. The initial reaction is one of disbelief, but as more and more begin to appear, society is forced to attempt to address this strange new phenomenon. As childish tussles give way to deadly brawls and schools are forced to begin gender segregation, the very fabric of society unravels and young women are recruited to fight a bitter battle between the sexes that ravages Eastern Europe.

In Alderman’s present, electricity is no longer a thing of convenience, but a power to be held within the hands of women, to throw off the shackles of oppression. The future, however, is anything but bright, and all thoughts of equality are thrown to the wind. Ideas of a softer, more maternal society give way to hordes of women who rule with iron fists, as men are assigned their place on the bottom rungs of the ladder, forced into submission as slaves to the female race.

The storyline is complex and multi-layered, presenting a future where women have forgotten the male-dominated times of the past – the systems overthrown within the main body of text – and men are thought to be the fairer sex. This book is so much more than the latest attempt at a feminist dystopia. It is refreshing and insightful, combining a gripping storyline alongside an interesting analysis of societal ideas about equality and fairness within gender roles.

This review was first published on online for E&T magazine.