Top 10 artifacts of 2014

  1. Moby Dick in emojis – No comment
  2. New York High Line – The third and final part of one of the most influential urban developments of the last years opened this year, and it continues to see copies all over the world.
  3. The Treadmill Desk – First, we had the standing desk. Then, we got the the treadmill desk. Finally, we had the logical conclusion –  the human hamster wheel.
  4. The little green men of Crimea and Ukraine – The little green men were somewhat green, not so little, but definitely one of the more poignant images of the year.
  5. Doritos Locos – The apex of civilization.
  6. ISIS currency – The trend of nonlinear threats from non-state actors met the trend of antipathy toward the reigning financial system and had a love child in an ISIS currency based solely on gold.
  7. Honk Kong Umbrellas – Another key symbol of the year, the umbrellas of the HK protesters managed to show their vulnerability as well as the pragmatism of HK residents.
  8. Kim Kardashian app – Another defining moment of the year came when Kim Kardashian released one of the highest-grossing apps of the year.
  9. The Twitter buy button – The downside of being a public company, Twitter released a buy button which was symptomatic of its increasingly desperate attempts at finding revenue.
  10. Samsung Gear – As much as I believe in the potential of smart devices, it was yet another year of disappointment in this market not taking off. Samsung rolled out a whole slew of wearable devices, to the sound of no hands clapping.

Top 10 Risks of 2014

Some of the top risks that featured in the debate this year:
  1. Artificial Intelligence and superhuman machine intelligence – A trio of impressive people have this year highlighted the threat of “too smart” AI in the long run. Elon Musk said that we are summoning the demon by developing AI, Stephen Hawking cautioned against its unrestrained development, and Nick Bostrom, in his outstanding book Superintelligence, laid out the case why most scenarios for AI all lead to human extinction because of the ways the intelligence will think.
  2. Killer Asteroids – Several projects have been started to scan for killer asteroids that might wipe humanity out before AI gets to do it
  3. Climate Change inaction – If 1 and 2 don’t do humanity in, we can always rely on climate change to deliver. Stunning scenarios were delivered this year of how the world will look as we blow part 2 degree warming. In some ways, it feels like this was the year when we finally started to see a sea (pun intented) change in public sentiment. But the political constraints will ensure that doesn’t mean any meaningful action, at least for now.
  4. Rise of Nonlinear Terrorism – ISIS has clearly showed this year how unpredictable non-state actors can be, and how impactful and lethal.
  5. EU Deflation – The EU continues to balance on the knife’s edge of falling into deflation, further cementing its decline in importance as a region
  6. The Chinese debt crisis – This continues to be the dark horse, the elephant in the room, that is only mentioned in whispers. May or may not cause a rerun of the financial crisis.
  7. A Thirty-Year Middle East Sunni-Shia conflict – A real danger is that ISIS is just the most visible piece of a the century-long brewing Sunni-Shia conflict, and that we’ll eventually see a Saudi-Iran conflict.
  8. Oil at $50 (mostly if you’re Russia/Venezuela/Iraq) – Most of the world is cheering the falling oil prices, but it also has negative effects, and not just for the world’s petrodictatorships. If US shale producers get squeezed out, the Gulf states regain their power to dictate the terms of the world economy.
  9. South China Sea – The rise of a Sino-centric Asia continues to be most prominently reflected in the fears of a conflict starting from an incident in the South China Sea, given the multitude of interested parties and the unregulated waters.
  10. Climate conflicts – As we wait longer in tackling climate change, the danger grows of climate-driven conflicts, over water, food, arable land, and other commodities that will become scarce in the decades to come.

Top 10 Time-saving, Life-saving and Memory-saving Apps of the year

These are the 10 apps (smartphone or web) that have improved my life this year:
  1. IFTTT – If This Then That continues to be one of the most revolutionary tools out there, since it allows you to create a rules-driven world just to your liking. Now also incorporating real-life events, with the addition of a number of smart home devices.
  2. Conspire – simple, smart email tool that analyzes your emails, and lets you know when you’re losing touch with people.
  3. Buffer – must-use scheduling tool for social media updates.
  4. Getty – key tool for bloggers, with their new, free-of-charge, embedded images for use on websites.
  5. Manageflitter – the simplest tool for maintaining a clean twitter following list. I hit 2001 all the time, which means I call up Manageflitter all the time to tell me which accounts are inactive and can be dropped.
  6. The Economist Espresso – The Economist finally enters the app game, and releases an app that gives you a nice caffeinated dose of key news of the morning.
  7. Memrise – the wonderful tool by memory champion Ed Cooke that allows you to learn anything using the latest in memory techniques
  8. Dashlane – the best password tool. Use it on all devices.
  9. Memoir – one of the life hacks, brings up photos and social media memories from a specific day in your life, one to five years later. Lets you live in the past while living in the future.
  10. Sound Sleepr – a lifesaver. Creates white noise for my son. Who knew it was so nice to sleep to the sound of a vacuum cleaner.

Top 10 Unexpected Friendships of the Year

  1. Putin + Erdogan – cosying up to each other with the recent gas deal, but also just copying each other – president and PM switch, leveraging state religion, consolidating power…
  2. Uber + Spotify – an announcement that got lost in the recent Uber PR fiasco, but fun idea none the less – listen to your playlists in your Uber car! Although completely superfluous and frivolous.
  3. Evernote + WSJ – Evernote, still the most useful app ever created, is testing out new things – one of them is to get context info from Factiva. Theoretically useful, but not sure in practice
  4. Tim Cook + Dr Dre – Apple makes a vert anti-Jobs move, with its biggest purchase ever.
  5. Ello + Threadless – the anti-Facebook announces its plans to make revenue, and it involves selling T-shirts!
  6. Amazon + Twitch – Amazon buys little known video playing broadcasting network
  7. Burning Man + Grover Norquist – Grover Norquist goes to Burning Man, in a further sign that, in fact, everyone goes to Burning Man.
  8. GoPro + Drones – Everyone puts their GoPro on a drone, and GoPro eventually announces that they will just make their own drones.
  9. Putin + Depardieu – Depardieu, in a foie gras stupor, decides he has had it with French taxes, and gets a Russian passport
  10. Doritos + Taco Bell – Taco Bell launches the height of consumer innovation – a taco with a Doritos-flavored shell. The Internet loses it.

Top 10 Interesting Ideas of 2014

2014 was full of good new ideas. Here is a top 10 list of some of the ones I found the most interesting:
  1. Crowdfunding – not a new idea this year, granted, but it felt like this was the year when it really took off. There were some great campaigns on both Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Especially for hardware, where we’re really seeing a revolution in terms of innovative products coming to market.
  2. Shared Economy – same thing here, it’s not a new thing this year, but again, the year it really took off. At least if we define take off by the moment when regulators discovered it and tried their best to shut it down. Especially Uber and Airbnb, given their size, were the targets of regulators everywhere from Germany to New York.
  3. “Take X and add AI” – Kevin Kelly commenting on the business plans of the “next 10,000 startups” in Wired.
  4. The Blackphone, The Onion Router, and other similar privacy tools have seen a huge increase in interest in the post-Snowden era.
  5. 10x improvement instead of 10% improvement – the Silicon Valley mantra. Reinvent from the bottom up rather than tinkering with incremental improvements.
  6. Bitcoin – perhaps Bitcoin itself will not be the revolution many thought, but this was the year that the idea of a digital currency as the default payment method of the web started making sense.
  7. Data Journalism – this was the year that data journalism became “a thing”. Everybody wanted to start their own data journalism venture this year. In addition to Vox and 538, there were data deep dives and infographics everywhere.
  8. Cyborgification – the idea that humans are already part human, part machine, given the enormous capabilities we have with smartphones in our pockets. We also saw cyborg/augmented chess teams, consisting of computers and humans teaming up, and beating stand-alone humans and computers.
  9. 3D-printed food – explored by NASA and the military. Soon a consumer reality?
  10. Geoengineering – the climate change debate took a turn and started looking at whether we should give up on the 2 degree target and focus on geoengineering and similar methods to reverse climate change instead.

2014 Top 10 Key events heralding future trends

First top 10 list: Events during the year that have the highest significance for future trends, and can be sure to reverberate next year and going forward.

  1. The rise of ISIS – signaling the nonlinear threats of terrorism in the future, and more broadly, the increased power of non-state actors.
  2. The annexation of Crimea – signaling the end of the geopolitical post-Cold War era, as borders are less expected to be respected.
  3. The $40 billion valuation of Uber – Showing the enormous potential in disrupting existing industries, if done right, and monetizing assets that were previously impossible to monetize (people’s time, people unused cars, time wasted waiting for taxis).
  4. UKIP’s (UK Independence Party) gains in UK by-elections and rise of the far-right parties in the European Parliament elections – a sign of the increased frustration with the status quo in today’s political economy in the EU. The economy is moribund, and politicians are powerless.
  5. The Ebola outbreak – demonstrating the increased interconnectedness of the world, for better or worse.
  6. The Scotland referendum – showing increased nationalism, but not always nationalism that corresponds to current borders, but rather smaller (Scotland, Catalonia) or bigger (Islamic State Caliphate) parts.
  7. The announcement of China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank – signals the first nail in the coffin of the supranational system set up post-World War II, as the rising powers want a larger say in the global economy. If the IMF doesn’t reform, then they’ll create their own institutions.
  8. The Alibaba IPO – already seeing a higher valuation than Walmart, suggesting the enormous promise of the Chinese consumer economy.
  9. The Amazon drone delivery announcement – heralding a brave new world of instant delivery of anything and everything. Maybe.
  10. Regin – a piece of malware probably created by the US, showing how cyber warfare is getting more and more powerful.

December – a month for taking stock of the year

December is of course the traditional time when everyone looks back over the year and reflects on what actually happened and what it all means. The time when every media outlet will publish top 10 lists, each in their own field. This year, I’ve decided to join the herd, and make my own top 10 lists this December. I will however try to stay away from the traditional list topics, and go for more interesting, cross-cutting topics, all focusing on events and things that point to the future. I will try to post a new list every day of the month, so stay tuned!

Links to all lists will be on this page.

The impossibility of long-term forecasting

Lucy Kellaway wrote an article a while back, poking fun of McKinsey Institute’s new set of long-term forecasts, looking 50 years into the future. As part of her brilliant takedown of the report, she makes the very astute observation that the trends that MGI identify are not trends of the future, they are trends of the present. It’s become more clear lately just how hard it is for people to forecast significant change. We can see linear change, but as soon as the curve is not linear, but instead exponential or broken, our foresight breaks down. We are ok with change, we even like it, as long as it is nice incremental change, and not “superchange”. Our brains are programmed to enjoy inertia and protest if things seem too foreign.

I’ve lately been enjoying Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence. He seems to be one of the few people who is comfortable with the idea of superchange. In the book, he has a chart showing the foreseen outcomes of superhuman machine intelligence by experts in the field. Even among these people, who are the most knowledgeable in the field, a majority of them think super human machine intelligence will most likely have moderately good outcomes. Only a very small minority (<10%), foresee it to have extremely negative outcomes. This feels like an extremely short-sighted assumption.

It used to be the case that we could learn of the future from looking at the past. Now it seem this is no longer the case, since today’s world might in fact be more complex and non-linear than times past. However, even if we can’t learn about the content of the future, we can surely learn about the speed and magnitude of change. It is an undeniable fact that someone looking 20 years forward in 1994 would not be able to foresee the things we take for granted today. This goes from obvious aspects, such as the powerful computers in our pockets that we know as cell phones, to the inescapability of climat change. It is therefore extremely presumptious of us to assume that we can forecast 2034 with anything remotely approaching certainty. It seems to a statistical impossibility that we would not experience superchange at the same rate as the past. It is actually even more likely than in the past, given the combinatorial aspects of inventions, as outlined by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee in The Second Machine Age.

We have developed tools to forecast the future and imagine change based on current irreversible trends, but now we need to invent the tools to imagine superchange. Otherwise, we are proceeding blindly into the future.

The One Unassailable Argument to Act on Global Warming

Peter Singer, famous ethics philosopher, recently spoke at the Carnegie Council. I wasn’t there, but I listened to the podcast. In it, he stated the case for acting now on climate change in a very simple and clear way.

The two arguments against acting on climate change are that it either not happening, or not caused by human action. Singer’s argument neatly addresses both of them by circumventing them. Singer’s statement can be read in full here, but the basic gist is a simple cost and benefit argument.

The cost of global warming, once it is in irreversible effect, has been estimated to be up to 2.8% of global GDP. Global (nominal) GDP now is now around $70 trillion, so even if we assumed that GDP wouldn’t be higher at the time that global warming really kicks in (an unrealistic assumption), it would still be a cost of 2 trillion per year.

If we look at this cost alone, the second argument (whether it is caused by human action), becomes irrelevant – the costs will be there for us to face regardless of the cause. The first argument then becomes a case of probability-weighted cost. Some people might still question whether global warming is indeed happening. Let’s put a probability on that doubt, perhaps, to be generous, we argue that it is only a 20% likelihood (unrealistically low).

The expected cost then is $400 billion/year. Not to mention of course that this will be unevenly distributed across the world. This cost, for the world as a whole, is the cost we should compare with when we look at the costs of starting to tackle it (costs that will only go up the longer we wait). Looking at it that way, as a simple cost/benefit of taking out an insurance policy, taking action now seems like a very cheap insurance against a potentially very expensive problem. For any other similar risk, we would take out insurance. Not taking it against a risk such as global warming, that could wreck the planet, seems perverse. It suggests that we value future human lives much, much lower than current ones, to a higher degree than previously thought.

Technology drives returns to capital

Technology is not the solution, Bill Gates said in the FT last year. It’s a surprising statement coming from a man who has made his billions pushing Clippy on people, but in the world Gates inhabits now, in terms of the big challenges facing the world, he’s right that technology can only get us so far.

Similarly, Peter Thiel’s VC firm, Founders Fund, famously has as its motto that “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters”. It’s become a truism to say that most new applications that we get in the world are solving first-world problems, or really a subset of first-world problems, the problems of 20-year males in big cities. Hence, this is why we get new apps like Washio – Uber for laundry.

As much as these apps are easy to make fun of, if we look further ahead in the future, the problem seems set to just become worse. Almost all technological progress we make is creating competition in places where there earlier wasn’t any, is driving returns to capital and is commoditizing what earlier was precious and had value.

The sharing economy is a good example of the latter – commoditizing. On one hand, it seems like a good thing that we are creating value out of earlier unmonetized assets – empty apartments, idle cars, unemployed people. However, given the endless supply of these, the economics are terrible both for the suppliers of the new good and the old one. Looking at e.g. Uber, the supplier of the old good – the taxi driver – gets put out of work due to the cheaper competition that he can’t compete with, and the supplier of the new good – the Uber driver – gets paid very little for his efforts. The only one making additional income is the company, Uber in this case. You therefore end up with a net loss to the economy. For Airbnb, the same logic applies.

Amazon’s Mechanical Turk is a more egregious example. By breaking a task up into tiny pieces, the value put on people’s time can be set extremely low, such as 10 cents/task, regardless of how long it takes.

The other factor of technology is how it creates competition where there was earlier less. Again, this is good in small doses – when breaking up a monopoly, for example. Good examples are Aereo tackling cable companies or Solar City taking on utilities. Certain industries need to be shaken up. But since technology drives returns to capital, and to scale, there is no such thing as a small dose. Globalization, for example, driven by improved communications technology, doesn’t stop until all countries compete for the same resources. Likewise, automation doesn’t stop with blue-collar workers, it is now the white collar workers who face a slow extinction.

I remain an optimist regarding technology futures overall (at least compared to Elon Musk, who now believes we might be summoning the demon with AI), but it’s becoming harder and harder to see how the combination of a growing population, a new economy with less, and less well-paid work, increased competition between and within countries, and governments with unsustainable debts, will work out.