Technology and the future divide between the haves and the have nots

I’ve written a few times now about The Singularity and technological advancement and have just found this great TED talk that continues some of these ideas. In it, economist Andrew McAfee speculates about a likely near future and what it means for society. He gives some compelling data regarding the recent life-courses of those who have a good education, and are in professional, creative type jobs, and those that have had minimal schooling and have been limited to unskilled or semi-skilled manual jobs. Life has been good to the former whilst the latter have been marginalised and alienated as they have increasingly found themselves being long-term, out of work. Interestingly, an article on the BBC website only today reports an argument being made to the heads at the G8 summit, that more investment should be given to schools and universities in order to continue a prosperous economy. That education is the means to freedom and a better life is generally uncontested. But when this is considered in the light of McAfee’s predictions on a future high-tech society, it is clear that we should be taking this seriously in order to give everyone a chance of the good life that most of you reading this will already have.

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Moore’s Law, the Singularity and why we can’t keep up with technology…

When older people complain that the world is changing too fast we usually dismiss their concerns as the normal product of an ageing brain. They can’t keep up with technological advancements, we surmise, because they’ve lost too many neurons and their brain is unable to work as fast as it did when they were younger. But perhaps we’re wrong. Perhaps the world really is changing faster than it has in the past. And the older you are, the more past you’ve lived through and the longer you’ve had to keep pace with the change.

This is certainly the view that I have been persuaded by recently.

I started reading a great book by Raymond Kurzweil last year called, ‘The Singularity is Near: When humans transcend biology‘ and have found his arguments compelling. Essentially he maintains that technological evolution progresses at an exponential rate (often called Moore’s Law) and that we are currently in the midst of a paradigm shift in human evolution. This might sound like science fiction but it seems to ring true.

This morning I watched a video by glass company Corning which examined some its previous claims about the possibility of ‘intelligent’ [my word] glass as to what is currently possible with this technology, and what is likely to be possible in the near future. This is technology that only ten years ago would have been considered a life-time away [viz. Minority Report].

My sister, too, was only talking to me at the weekend about the impending shift towards ‘augmented reality‘ applications on smartphones and tablets. QR codes (which I’ve just got to grips with) are going to be old-hat by this time next year.

Finally, TED talks pointed me in the direction of a presentation given by Danny Hillis in 1994 which predicted this technology boom. Thus further supporting Kurzweil’s hypothesis.

So, if you are like my dad, who, when I was growing up was a technophile but is now finding himself left behind and over-whelmed by advances in technology, then don’t despair. Yes, technology is changing at an ever faster rate but we live in exciting times with exciting possibilities. It is easy to be overwhelmed but these advances in technology should make it easier to embed them into our lives so that they fit with our natural instincts and ways of being. In the same way that the ipad is more intuitive than a pc, other technologies will adjust to us, so we don’t have to make so much effort or try to keep up with the change.

Remembering the BBC Micro

First, this post has got nothing to do with sport, philosophy, or politics (which is what pretty every other post on this blog has been about).

It’s about the BBC microcomputer which is celebrating its 30th anniversary.

Having just read a BBC article about it I thought I’d add my thoughts since it formed such an important part of my childhood.

My dad was always an avid computer fan since first visiting a computer the size of a room in the 1960s which successfully managed to calculate a series of numbers and culminated in the ejection of a card with the answer in binary form. When the first personal computers were being developed in the late 1970s my dad was determined to get one. Unfortunately it took him until 1981 to save up which he did by going without lunch for a year (he also had three small children to support).

One of my earliest memories is of my dad coming home and unpacking our new acquisition. We  set it up on the living room floor (though I doubt as a four year old I was that helpful) and connected it to our black and white TV. Over the next few weeks we practised programming it and even now I have an eery sensation whenever I hear the start up sounds and see the picture of the dot matrix owl.

It was an amazing process for me and even as a five year old I would sit for hours copying out various programmes from magazines – though inevitably there would always be a ‘syntax error at line 160’ which meant they would never run.

Having access to a computer from the beginning of my childhood, and a father who was so enthusiastic about it, gave me an advantage in computing skills that hold me in good stead even 30 years later. I never went into computing and don’t know any current programming languages, but it has given me a ease with computers that many of my peers don’t have. To me, they just seem intuitive. Yes, sure they can be temperamental sometimes but when you have spent hours trying to load a tape onto a BBC micro only for it to fail right at the end, you realise that actually these days they’re pretty reliable and incredibly fast.

I loved my dad’s BBC micro and I feel privileged and thankful that he was interested enough to get me involved: he took me to a weekly computer club – which in my memory was dark and full of bearded men talking over flashing screens and lights. He also took me to see my first film which happened to be Tron.

I have really fond memories of the BBCmicro which gave me a great start in life and the opportunity to spend so much quality time with my dad. Thanks Beeb.

Inside Sport: ‘Is professionalism killing sport?’

In the BBC programme ‘Inside Sport‘, Ed Smith asked, ‘Is professionalism killing sport?’ This isn’t meant as a literal question, but rather one that focuses upon the individuals participating in sport at a professional level. Smith’s argument is essentially that being a professional (where the goal of winning becomes paramount – whether that is monetary reward, medals or status) requires putting aside those things that enable individuals to get to that level in the first place; things such as: fun, self-expression, enjoyment, playfulness, flair and instinct. This, Smith argues, is a bad thing, as he concluded towards the end of the programme when he threw his lens upon Tiger Woods:

“People usually argue that the rest of his life is damaging Tiger’s golf. In fact, maybe it’s too much golf that has harmed the rest of his life.”

It think it’s this sentiment that is the most important aspect of Smith’s analysis. It’s not that the levels of performance in sport have got worse through professionalism; as records will show. Humans now run faster, kick more accurately and tackle more powerfully (in rugby for instance). But all this improvement in overall performance is at the detriment of the eudaimonia (well-being) of individual athletes and also at the expense of other aesthetic and emotional values of sport.

I’m giving a talk in October for the Gloucestershire Philosophical Society on the technologicalisation of the athlete, which is going to focus upon some of these issues. The problem, I will argue, is not to do with innovations in technology which are used to dissect and analyse performance in order to perfect techniques and movement, but rather the real problem is with our attitude towards sporting performance believing that it ought to be treated in this technological way. The upshot of this technological attitude is that we treat humans as automatons that can be controlled and manipulated in every way to achieve a specific sporting goal. We forget that the human experience and what it is to live a good life is so much more than this reductionist approach to improving sporting performance. As Ed Smith quite rightly demonstrated through his interview with former England cricketer and Strictly Come Dancing winner, Mark Ramprakash, there is more to life than this narrow view of winning in sport.

Incidentally, if you fancy coming along to my talk to discuss these ideas in more depth then details can be found here: 27 October 2010,  19:30 – 21:30, Room HC203, FCH, Uni of Gloucestershire, Swindon Road, Cheltenham, GL50 4AZ.

Are there any good arguments against using goal-line technology in football?

Yesterday I wrote a post for the Philosophy and Sport blog about Sepp Blatter’s apology following Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal in the World Cup. This is despite the strong rejection by FIFA to implement goal-line technology only months before. This rejection comprises of the following seven reasons:

  1. So that the game is the same whether it is played by kids in a local park or whether it is on the international stage.
  2. Even with technology, humans have to make the final decision which could still prove controversial and therefore wouldn’t solve any problems.
  3. Fans like to have a debate over the controversial decisions.
  4. It will undermine the quality of the referees (as they would be able to abdicate responsibility for making correct decisions)
  5. The technology is too expensive
  6. Testing the effectiveness of the technology and deciding which technology to use is expensive
  7. The dynamics and rhythm of the game: a scoring counter-attack could no longer happen if play was stopped to for a replay of events.

All of these reasons seem to be bad ones; either inconsistent with other facts or based on flawed logic. I will deal with each of them in turn.

1. That the game should be the same where-ever it is played.

    • Presumably this reason is only related to ‘official’ games and not a kick around in the park with one goal made of jumpers, seven players and no referee.
    • If it is only related to ‘official’ games then there are still disparities between the quality of the pitch, the quality of the ball, the quality of the referee and whether there are any line-judges at all. Games played on the Downs in a Sunday league are not going to be standardized to games played in the World Cup despite the best intentions of Sepp Blatter and his FIFA colleagues.

2. Implementing the technology would be pointless as it wouldn’t solve the problem of human error.

    • This argument is ridiculously flawed and is equivalent to saying: installing burglar alarms will never completely stop burglaries happening so there’s no point in installing them in the first place. Just because crime prevention measures won’t stop all crime, it doesn’t mean that it won’t reduce crime. In the same vein, even though there will on occasion still be difficult judgements to make, such technology will make (obviously) bad decisions less likely.

3. Fans like to debate controversial decisions after the event.

    • For some reason, this is the one that most of my students give when I set them an exam question on this topic.
    • Yes, one of the compelling aspects of sport is the reflection on games but arguably this is a question of justice. As anyone who has been subject to frequently bad or biased decisions during a match knows, it gets damned frustrating and demoralising. One of the fundamental values of sport is that it is supposed to be conducted on a ‘level playing field’ where all things are equal except the skill of the individual players.
    • This is all the more true when it is isn’t just about the game itself but has other consequences on business, finance and the future prospect of individual players.
    • To say that it enlivens the pub conversation after the match is just a cop-out.

4. Undermining the quality of referees.

    • The argument goes something like: if we use this technology, referees will not have to make difficult decisions and therefore the standard of the referees will inevitably be reduced.
    • First, this argument is inconsistent with the one they give in reason 2 where they maintain that difficult decisions will still have to be made despite the use of technology.
    • Second, why implementing goal-line technology would lead to a reduction in the overall standard of the referee is not clear. Are FIFA supposing that referees will just become lazy and leave all debatable decisions to the fourth official? This one was one of the fears that surrounded the use of Hawkeye by cricket umpires: in that it would reduce the umpire to the status of counting men and coat stands (incidentally, their original status at the origins of the game). But such a worry proved to be unfounded as umpires see the technology as an assistance to making their decisions and are not as a way to undermine their authority and judgement.

5. The expense of implementing the technology.

    • This reason seems incredulous considering football is the richest sport in the world and when it is used by other (less financially viable) sports that haven’t gone bankrupt. If players are being paid multi-million pounds per year and clubs are worth billions, it isn’t even worth giving word space to this argument. If FIFA are putting profits before sporting justice then it indicates what kind of moral authority it is.

6. The expense of testing the technology.

    • I repeat my comments for point 5.
    • Arguably, the expense for testing the equipment would have been much greater for those sports that first implemented it, such as American Football and Tennis. As FIFA would be the last in a long list of sports to use it, it wouldn’t be too difficult or expensive to review the way this technology has been effectively used in other sports.

7. It would disrupt the flow of the game.

    • This, to me, appears to be the most reasonable of reasons that FIFA gives for not implementing the technology. One could imagine a situation where it isn’t clear whether a goal has occurred, play stops, the referee goes to the fourth official who judges that it wasn’t a goal and then play restarts from a goal kick. However, had play continued from the first shot at goal, a counter attack could have taken place and a goal could have been scored at the other end. Well yes, this could have been a possibility but the game is full of ‘what-ifs’. ‘What if’ the ball hadn’t been kicked off the pitch for the player down injured? ‘What if’ the referee had given a yellow card as well as a free-kick? ‘What if’ one the players hadn’t come down with food poisoning?
    • The game wouldn’t have to be stopped straight away anyway. Let’s use an imaginary Lampard example. Lampard strikes, the ball appears to go over the line but no official has seen it. Play goes on, the Germans counter-attack and score at the other end. At this point the game has stopped anyway. The referee then consults with the fourth official who looks at the replay and awards Lampard’s goal. Play resumes from the centre sport and justice is done.
    • Would it really disrupt the game unduly to use technology in this way? I doubt it.

These are my responses to FIFA’s reasons. All of them can be dismissed and therefore there seems to be no good argument against the use of goal-line technology in football. Anyone disagree? Comments welcome.

BBC Reith Lecture on Genetic Technology

I was interested to listen to Professor Michael Sandel’s perspective on the ethics of genetic technology in sport in this year’s series of Reith Lectures. Having spent three years writing my PhD thesis on the subject, for it to be brought to the forefront of public attention is welcomed. This is especially so when little real philosophical consideration is actually given to these types of issues and too much policy is dictated by an emotional gut reaction. Programmes like this highlight how philosophy is of real value in our daily lives.

And if you’re interested in hearing my views on the subject, then either visit my website and read some of my papers, or get in contact with me directly.