Future Challenges for Remote Working

When the COVID-19 lockdown forced many offices to close and their staff to work remotely, some of us saw what was unfolding as an… opportunity in disguise. Instead of the slow-but-steady decentralisation of work that’s very slowly become possible (technically, administratively, and politically) over the last 50 years, suddenly a torrent of people were discovering that remote working can work.

Man in sci-fi jumpsuit and futuristic AR goggles.
Unfulfilled promises of the world of tomorrow include flying cars, viable fusion power, accessible space travel, post-scarcity economies, and – until recently – widespread teleworking. Still waiting on my holodeck too.

The Future is Now

As much as I hate to be part of the “where’s my flying car?” brigade, I wrote ten years ago about my dissatisfaction that remote working wasn’t yet commonplace, let alone mainstream. I recalled a book I’d read as a child in the 1980s that promised a then-future 2020 of:

  1. near-universal automation of manual labour as machines become capable of an increasing diversity of human endeavours (we’re getting there, but slowly),
  2. a three- or four-day work week becoming typical as efficiency improvements are reinvested in the interests of humans rather than of corporations (we might have lost sight of that goal along the way, although there’s been some fresh interest in it lately), and
  3. widespread “teleworking”/”telecommuting”, as white-collar sectors grow and improvements in computing and telecommunications facilitate the “anywhere office”

Of those three dreams, the third soon seemed like it would become the most-immediate. Revolutionary advances in mobile telephony, miniaturisation of computers, and broadband networking ran way ahead of the developments in AI that might precipitate the first dream… or the sociological shift required for the second. But still… progress was slow.

At eight years old, I genuinely believed that most of my working life would be spent… wherever I happened to be. So far, most of my working life has been spent in an office, despite personally working quite hard for that not to be the case!

Driver's temperature being checked at the roadside by somebody in full protective equipment.
Apply directly to the head! Commuting looks different today than it did last year, but at least the roads are quieter.

I started at Automattic six months ago, an entirely distributed company. And so when friends and colleagues found themselves required to work remotely by the lockdown they came in droves to me for advice about how to do it! I was, of course, happy to help where I could: questions often covered running meetings and projects, maintaining morale, measuring output, and facilitating communication… and usually I think I gave good answers. Sometimes, though, the answer was “If you’re going to make that change, you’re going to need a cultural shift and some infrastructure investment first.” Y’know: “Don’t start from here.” If you received that advice from me: sorry!

(Incidentally, if you have a question I haven’t answered yet, try these clever people first for even better answers!)

More-recently, I was excited to see that many companies have adopted this “new normal” not as a temporary measure, but as a possible shape of things to come. Facebook, Twitter, Shopify, Square, and Spotify have all announced that they’re going to permit or encourage remote work as standard, even after the crisis is over.

Obviously tech companies are leading the way, here: not only are they most-likely to have the infrastructure and culture already in place to support this kind of shift. Also, they’re often competing for the same pool of talent and need to be seen as at-least as progressive as their direct rivals. Matt Mullenweg observes that:

What’s going to be newsworthy by the end of the year is not technology companies saying they’re embracing distributed work, but those that aren’t.

…some employers trapped in the past will force people to go to offices, but the illusion that the office was about work will be shattered forever, and companies that hold on to that legacy will be replaced by companies who embrace the antifragile nature of distributed organizations.

Distributed Work's Five Levels of Autonomy, by Matt Mullenweg.
I’ve shared this before, I know, but it exudes Matt’s enthusiasm for distributed work so well that I’m sharing it again. Plus, some of the challenges I describe below map nicely to the borders between some of

Tomorrow’s Challenges

We’re all acutely familiar with the challenges companies are faced with today as they adapt to a remote-first environment. I’m more interested in the challenges that they might face in the future, as they attempt to continue to use a distributed workforce as the pandemic recedes. It’s easy to make the mistake of assuming that what many people are doing today is a rehearsal for the future of work, but the future will look different.

Some people, of course, prefer to spend some or all of their work hours in an office environment. Of the companies that went remote-first during the lockdown and now plan to stay that way indefinitely, some will lose employees who preferred the “old way”. For this and other reasons, some companies will retain their offices and go remote-optional, allowing flexible teleworking, and this has it’s own pitfalls:

  • Some remote-optional offices have an inherent bias towards in-person staff. In some companies with a mixture of in-person and remote staff, remote workers don’t get included in ad-hoc discussions, or don’t become part of the in-person social circles. They get overlooked for projects or promotions, or treated as second-class citizens. It’s easy to do this completely by accident and create a two-tiered system, which can lead to a cascade effect that eventually collapses the “optional” aspect of remote-optional; nowhere was this more visible that in Yahoo!’s backslide against remote-optional working in 2013.
  • Some remote-optional offices retain an archaic view on presenteeism and “core hours”. Does the routine you keep really matter? Remote-first working demands that productivity is measured by output, not by attendance, but management-by-attendance is (sadly) easier to implement, and some high-profile organisations favour this lazy but less-effective approach. It’s easy, but ineffective, for a remote-optional company to simply extend hours-counting performance metrics to their remote staff. Instead, allowing your staff (insofar as is possible) to work the hours that suit them as individuals opens up your hiring pool to a huge number of groups whom you might not otherwise reach (like single parents, carers, digital nomads, and international applicants) and helps you to get the best out of every one of them, whether they’re an early bird, a night owl, or somebody who’s most-productive after their siesta!
  • Pastoral care doesn’t stop being important after the crisis is over. Many companies that went remote-first for the coronavirus crisis have done an excellent job of being supportive and caring towards their employees (who, of course, are also victims of the crisis: by now, is there anybody whose life hasn’t been impacted?). But when these companies later go remote-optional, it’ll be easy for them to regress to their old patterns. They’ll start monitoring the wellbeing only of those right in front of them. Remote working is already challenging, but it can be made much harder if your company culture makes it hard to take a sick day, seek support on a HR issue, or make small-talk with a colleague.
Teleworker dressed from the waist up.
On the Internet, nobody knows that you’re only properly-dressed from the waist up. No, wait: as of 2020, everybody knows that. Let’s just all collectively own it, ‘k.

These are challenges specifically for companies that go permanently remote-optional following a period of remote-first during the coronavirus crisis.

Towards a Post-Lockdown Remote-Optional Workplace

How you face those challenges will vary for every company and industry, but it seems to me that there are five lessons a company can learn as it adapts to remote-optional work in a post-lockdown world:

  1. Measure impact, not input. You can’t effectively manage a remote team by headcount or closely tracking hours; you need to track outputs (what is produced), not inputs (person-hours). If your outputs aren’t measurable, make them measurable, to paraphrase probably-not-Galileo. Find metrics you can work with and rely on, keep them transparent and open, and re-evaluate often. Use the same metrics for in-office and remote workers.
  2. Level the playing field. Learn to spot the biases you create. Do the in-person attendees do all the talking at your semi-remote meetings? Do your remote workers have to “call in” to access information only stored on-site (including in individual’s heads)? When they’re small, these biases have a huge impact on productivity and morale. If they get big, they collapse your remote-optional environment.
  3. Always think bigger. You’re already committing to a shakeup, dragging your company from the 2020 of the real world into the 2020 we once dreamed of. Can you go further? Can you let your staff pick their own hours? Or workdays? Can your staff work in other countries? Can you switch some of your synchronous communications channels (e.g. meetings) into asynchronous information streams (chat, blogs, etc.)? Which of your telecommunications tools serve you, and which do you serve?
  4. Remember the human. Your remote workers aren’t faceless (pantsless) interchangeable components in your corporate machine. Foster interpersonal relationships and don’t let technology sever the interpersonal links between your staff. Encourage and facilitate (optional, but awesome) opportunities for networking and connection. Don’t forget to get together in-person sometimes: we’re a pack animal, and we form tribes more-easily when we can see one another.
  5. Support people through the change. Remote working requires a particular skillset; provide tools to help your staff adapt to it. Make training and development options available to in-office staff too: encourage as flexible a working environment as your industry permits. Succeed, and your best staff will pay you back in productivity and loyalty. Fail, and your best staff will leave you for your competitors.

I’m less-optimistic than Matt that effective distributed working is the inexorable future of work. But out of the ashes of the coronavirus crisis will come its best chance yet, and I know that there’ll be companies who get left behind in the dust. What are you doing to make sure your company isn’t one of them?

Sandwichware: Machines Talking to Machines About Humans

A recent observation by Phil Gyford reminded me of a recurring thought I’ve had. He wrote:

While being driven around England it struck me that humans are currently like the filling in a sandwich between one slice of machine — the satnav — and another — the car. Before the invention of sandwiches the vehicle was simply a slice of machine with a human topping. But now it’s a sandwich, and the two machine slices are slowly squeezing out the human filling and will eventually be stuck directly together with nothing but a thin layer of API butter. Then the human will be a superfluous thing, perhaps a little gherkin on the side of the plate.

While we were driving I was reading the directions from a mapping app on my phone, with the sound off, checking the upcoming turns, and giving verbal directions to Mary, the driver. I was an extra layer of human garnish — perhaps some chutney or a sliced tomato — between the satnav slice and the driver filling.

What Phil’s describing is probably familiar to you: the experience of one or more humans acting as the go-between to allow two machines to communicate. If you’ve ever re-typed a document that was visible on another screen, read somebody a password over the phone, given directions from a digital map, used a pendrive to carry files between computers that weren’t talking to one another properly then you’ve done it: you’ve been the soft wet meaty middleware that bridged two already semi-automated (but not quite automated enough) systems.

Galaxy Quest: Tawny Madison says "Gosh, I'm doing it. I'm repeating the damn computer."
Sigourney Weaver as Gwen DeMarco as Tawny Madison realised what she was doing back in 1999. Should I be alarmed that a science fiction spoof is a better indicator of the future that the science fiction it parodies?

This generally happens because of the lack of a common API (a communications protocol) between two systems. If your phone and your car could just talk it out then the car would know where to go all by itself! Or, until we get self-driving cars, it could at least provide the directions in a way that was appropriately-accessible to the driver: heads-up display, context-relative directions, or whatever.

It also sometimes happens when the computer-to-human interface isn’t good enough; for example I’ve often offered to navigate for a driver (and used my phone for the purpose) because I can add a layer of common sense. There’s no need for me to tell my buddy to take the second exit from every roundabout in Milton Keynes (did you know that the town has 930 of them?) – I can just tell them that I’ll let them know when they have to change road and trust that they’ll just keep going straight ahead until then.

Finally, we also sometimes find ourselves acting as a go-between to filter and improve information flow when the computers don’t have enough information to do better by themselves. I’ll use the fact that I can see the road conditions and the lane markings and the proposed route ahead to tell a driver to get into the right lane with an appropriate amount of warning. Or if the driver says “I can see signs to our destination now, I’ll just keep following them,” I can shut up unless something goes awry. Your in-car SatNav can’t do that because it can’t see and interpret the road ahead of you… at least not yet!

Oxbotica Driven self-driving car in Oxford.
I was certainly glad that this prototype self-driving car could “see” me when it overtook my bike the other day.

But here’s my thought: claims of an upcoming AI winter aside, it feels to me like we’re making faster progress in technologies related to human-computer interaction – voice and natural languages interfaces, popularised by virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa and by chatbots – than we are in technologies related to universal computer interoperability. Voice-controller computers are hip and exciting and attract a lot of investment but interoperable systems are hampered by two major things. The first thing holding back interoperability is business interests: for the longest while, for example, you couldn’t use Amazon Prime Video on a Google Chromecast for a long while because the two companies couldn’t play nice. The second thing is a lack of interest by manufacturers in developing open standards: every smart home appliance manufacturer wants you to use their app, and so your smart speaker manufacturer needs to implement code to talk to each and every one of them, and when they stop supporting one… well, suddenly your thermostat switches jumps permanently from smart mode to dumb mode.

A thing that annoys me is that from a technical perspective making an open standard should be a much easier task than making an AI that can understand what a human is asking for or drive a car safely or whatever we’re using them for this week. That’s not to say that technical standards aren’t difficult to get right – they absolutely are! – but we’ve been practising doing it for many, many decades! The very existence of the Internet over which you’ve been delivered this article is proof that computer interoperability is a solvable problem. For anybody who thinks that the interoperability brought about by the Internet was inevitable or didn’t take lots of hard work, I direct you to Darius Kazemi’s re-reading of the early standards discussions, which I first plugged a year ago; but the important thing is that people were working on it. That’s something we’re not really seeing in the Internet of Things space.

XKCD 927: Standards
Engineers: “Standards are good. Let’s have lots of them.”
Everybody else: “…?”

On our current trajectory, it’s absolutely possible that our virtual assistants will reach a point of becoming perfectly “human” communicators long before we can reach agreements about how they should communicate with one another. If that’s the case, those virtual assistants will probably fall back on using English-language voice communication as their lingua franca. In that case, it’s not unbelievable that ten to twenty years from now, the following series of events might occur:

  1. You want to go to your friends’ house, so you say out loud “Alexa, drive me to Bob’s house in five minutes.” Alexa responds “I’m on it; I’ll let you know more in a few minutes.”
  2. Alexa doesn’t know where Bob’s house is, but it knows it can get it from your netbook. It opens a voice channel over your wireless network (so you don’t have to “hear” it) and says “Hey Google, it’s Alexa [and here’s my credentials]; can you give me the address that [your name] means when they say ‘Bob’s house’?” And your netbook responds by reading out the address details, which Alexa then understands.
  3. Alexa doesn’t know where your self-driving car is right now and whether anybody’s using it, but it has a voice control system and a cellular network connection, so Alexa phones up your car and says: “Hey SmartCar, it’s Alexa [and here’s my credentials]; where are you and when were you last used?”. The car replies “I’m on the driveway, I’m fully-charged, and I was last used three hours ago by [your name].” So Alexa says “Okay, boot up, turn on climate control, and prepare to make a journey to [Bob’s address].” In this future world, most voice communication over telephones is done by robots: your virtual assistant calls your doctor’s virtual assistant to make you an appointment, and you and your doctor just get events in your calendars, for example, because nobody manages to come up with a universal API for medical appointments.
  4. Alexa responds “Okay, your SmartCar is ready to take you to Bob’s house.” And you have no idea about the conversations that your robots have been having behind your back

I’m not saying that this is a desirable state of affairs. I’m not even convinced that it’s likely. But it’s certainly possible if IoT development keeps focussing on shiny friendly conversational interfaces at the expense of practical, powerful technical standards. Our already topsy-turvy technologies might get weirder before they get saner.

But if English does become the “universal API” for robot-to-robot communication, despite all engineering common sense, I suggest that we call it “sandwichware”.

Ideal City Proposal by King C. Gillette

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

GILLETTE, IDEAL CITY PROPOSAL

Here we have a city every building of which is a perfect work of art, and whose setting is nature’s loveliest handiwork, made perfect by the intelligence of man.

How can we believe for a moment that we are now securing the best results of our highest intelligence, when we have it in our power to live in places such as described, and are yet content to crowd ourselves in cities where the streets are narrow, filthy, and ill-paved, where not a blade of grass or a single flower is seen except in isolated parks and a few florists’ windows, and where millions live who never inhale the fragrance of nature’s purest loveliness?

It does not follow that if a city were laid out regularly, it would necessarily become monotonous from sameness. Although the buildings and population would be equally distributed, and each building designed to accommodate about the same number, here all similarity would end; for the beauty of environment would change with almost every move of the beholder. The eye could not rest on any two buildings that were alike in architecture, in design or in coloring. Each and every building of “Metropolis” would be a complete and distinct world of art in itself. Every color and every shade of color would be found in their ceramic treatment. In some instances, there would be a gradual dissolving from a dark shade of color at the base to an almost white at the top of the buildings. In others, the general dissolving of one tint into another would give an effect that would combine all the prismatic tints of the rainbow. In others, a single delicate tint would be the predominating feature. Here, one would look as though chiselled from a block of emerald, another from jet, another from turquoise, and another from amethyst. One would have metallic lustre tints, while others would combine kaleidoscopic effects in colors and designs. Some would vie with nature in their beautiful designs in flowers; and, again. the most beautiful results could be produced in the opalescent effect, that would result from the application of combinations of colors in fine grooves, which could only be seen at the proper angle of observation. With every move of the individual, a transformation would take place. One tint would gradually dissolve through many shades into a different color. Pink would fade into green, green into gold; red, through every shade of purple, to blue, and so on through endless combinations; and with every change of reflected light, there would be a dissolving and gradual change in the beauties around us. We can never obtain grand effects in architecture except by ample space and complete conceptions in buildings.

Perspective is as necessary to artistic expression of architecture as proportion and design. A building that is high and broad should have an open space around it, sufficient to allow of its beauty being grasped as a whole; and a building should be built in such outline. and so removed from other buildings, that it has a continuous and harmonious facade from every point of view. This is not possible in the construction of buildings in our present cities. Our modern office buildings are the result of necessity; and the architect, instead of being allowed the free play of his imagination in the development of an artistic conception, is obliged to make his ideas conform to a contracted and narrow strip of land on which to build, not a building, but a tower.

Imagine for a moment these thirty odd thousand buildings of “Metropolis,” each standing alone, a majestic world of art–a city which with our present population, would be from sixty to seventy-five miles in length, and twenty to thirty in width–a never-ending city of beauty and cleanliness, and then compare it with our cities of filth, crime, and misery, with their ill-paved and dirty thoroughfares, crowded with the struggling masses of humanity and the system of necessary traffic. And then compare the machinery of both systems, and take your choice; for I believe the only obstacle that lies in the way of the building of this great city is man. For if he chooses to build it, he has the necessary intelligence, and can complete it within twenty-five years. The same endless variety in colors and designs would be found in the treatment of interiors, but in the ceramic decoration of upward of one hundred million rooms it would be possible to use the same designs in different colors and combinations of borders and panels in hundreds of thousands of rooms, and yet no two rooms would be treated exactly alike. It would be only natural that there would be hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of rooms of exactly the same dimensions: and thus machinery would economically come into play where such a wide field of duplication was possible. This is why I assert that tiling, though expensive now as a decorative feature of buildings, would, under these conditions of production, be actually cheaper than the common plaster on our walls. My idea is that the city should be actually a city of porcelain, as far as outside appearance was concerned, except where glass was used, and where wood or metal was used for window frames and doors.

I wish to speak here of another advantage which would result from there being millions of rooms of the same dimensions. In the manufacturing department of “Metropolis” rugs and carpets would be one of the large industries; and, where there where millions of rooms of like dimensions, it would be possible to make special machinery to weave carpets or rugs to the exact dimensions of rooms. In cases where millions were to be made to the same dimensions there could be thousands of different designs and combinations and shades of coloring.

He’s most-famous for inventing the safety razor (which he didn’t) or for inventing the disposable safety razor blade (which he also didn’t) or for popularising the razor-and-blades economic model (which he did, to great success), but far fewer know of King C. Gillette’s The Human Drift. In it, Gillette proposes his idea of an perfect, semi-utopian metropolis in which all of the citizens of North America could reside, arcology-style. Based on a multi-tiered hexagonal-grid structure with optimal efficiency and boundless expandability, the city itself would become “…the heart of a vast machine, to which over the thousands of miles of arteries of steel the raw material of production would find its way, there to be transformed in the mammoth mills and workshops into the life­giving elements that would sustain and electrify the mighty brain of the whole, which would be the combined intelligence of the entire population working in unison, but each and every individual working in his own channel of inclination.”

I don’t know how realistic his ideas were, but they’d make for spectacular science-fiction.

Quantum Computing and Cryptography

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Quantum computing is a new way of computing — one that could allow humankind to perform computations that are simply impossible using today’s computing technologies. It allows for very fast searching, something that would break some of the encryption algorithms we use today. And it allows us to easily factor large numbers, something that would…

A moderately-simple explanation of why symmetric cryptography is probably (or can probably be made, where it’s not) safe from our future quantum computer overlords, but asymmetric (split-key) cryptography probably isn’t. On the journey of developing the theory of computation, are we passing through within our lifetimes the short-but-inevitable bubble during which split-key cryptography is computationally viable? If so, what will our post-split-key cryptographic future look like? Interesting to think about.

Intermediary Protocols and Google Duplex

There’s a story that young network engineers are sometimes told to help them understand network stacks and/or the OSI model, and it goes something like this:

You overhear a conversation between two scientists on the subject of some topic relevant to their field of interest. But as you listen more-closely, you realise that the scientists aren’t in the same place at all but are talking to one another over the telephone (presumably on speakerphone, given that you can hear them both, I guess). As you pay more attention still, you realise that it isn’t the scientists on the phone call at all but their translators: each scientist speaks to their translator in the scientist’s own language, and the translators are translating what they say into a neutral language shared with the other translator who translate it into the language spoken by the other scientist. Ultimately, the two scientists are communicating with one another, but they’re doing so via a “stack” at their end which only needs to be conceptually the same as the “stack” at the other end as far up as the step-below-them (the “first link” in their communication, with the translator). Below this point, they’re entrusting the lower protocols (the languages, the telephone system, etc.), in which they have no interest, to handle the nitty-gritty on their behalf.

The OSI model reflected using the "scientists conversation" metaphor. Based upon original art by Yuki Fujimura, used under a Creative Commons License.
The two scientists are able to communicate with one another, but that communication is not direct.

This kind of delegation to shared intermediary protocols is common in networking and telecommunications. The reason relates to opportunity cost, or – for those of you who are Discworld fans – the Sam Vimes’ “Boots” Theory. Obviously an efficiency could be gained here if all scientists learned a lingua franca, a universal shared second language for their purposes… but most-often, we’re looking for a short-term solution to solve a problem today, and the short-term solution is to find a work-around that fits with what we’ve already got: in the case above, that’s translators who share a common language. For any given pair of people communicating, it’s more-efficient to use a translator, even though solving the global problem might be better accomplished by a universal second language (perhaps Esperanto, for valid if Eurocentric reasons!).

1950s illustration of "driverless cars of the future". The car follows a series of electronic markers down the middle of the highway.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the concept of a self-driving car was already well-established… but the proposed mechanism for action was quite different to that which we see today.

The phenomenon isn’t limited to communications, though. Consider self-driving cars. If you look back to autonomous vehicle designs of the 1950s (because yes, we’ve been talking about how cool self-driving cars would be for a long, long time), they’re distinctly different from the ideas we see today. Futurism of the 1950s focussed on adapting the roads themselves to make them more-suitable for self-driving vehicles, typically by implanting magnets or electronics into the road surface itself or by installing radio beacons alongside highways to allow the car to understand its position and surroundings. The modern approach, on the other hand, sees self-driving cars use LiDAR and/or digital cameras to survey their surroundings and complex computer hardware to interpret the data.

This difference isn’t just a matter of the available technology (although technological developments certainly inspired the new approach): it’s a fundamentally-different outlook! Early proposals for self-driving cars aimed to overhaul the infrastructure of the road network: a “big solution” on the scale of teaching everybody a shared second language. But nowadays we instead say “let’s leave the roads as they are and teach cars to understand them in the same way that people do.” The “big solution” is too big, too hard, and asking everybody to chip in a little towards outfitting every road with a standardised machine-readable marking is a harder idea to swallow than just asking each person who wants to become an early adopter of self-driving technology to pay a lot to implement a more-complex solution that works on the roads we already have.

LiDAR unit on a Google Self-Driving Car
In real life, these things spin much faster.

This week, Google showed off Duplex, a technology that they claim can perform the same kind of delegated-integration for our existing telephone lives. Let’s ignore for a moment the fact that this is clearly going to be overhyped and focus on the theoretical potential of this technology, which (even if it’s not truly possible today) is probably inevitable as chatbot technology improves: what does this mean for us? Instead of calling up the hairdresser to make an appointment, Google claim, you’ll be able to ask Google Assistant to do it for you. The robot will call the hairdresser and make an appointment on your behalf, presumably being mindful of your availability (which it knows, thanks to your calendar) and travel distance. Effectively, Google Assistant becomes your personal concierge, making all of those boring phone calls so that you don’t have to. Personally, I’d be more than happy to outsource to a computer every time I’ve had to sit in a telephone queue, giving the machine a summary of my query and asking it to start going through a summary of it to the human agent at the other end while I make my way back to the phone. There are obviously ethical considerations here too: I don’t like being hounded by robot callers and so I wouldn’t want to inflict that upon service providers… and I genuinely don’t know if it’s better or worse if they can’t tell whether they’re talking to a machine or not.

Process of having Google Assistant order a pizza, by phone, on your behalf.
I, for one, welcome our pizza-ordering overlords.

But ignoring the technology and the hype and the ethics, there’s still another question that this kind of technology raises for me: what will our society look like when this kind of technology is widely-available? As chatbots become increasingly human-like, smarter, and cheaper, what kinds of ways can we expect to interact with them and with one another? By the time I’m able to ask my digital concierge to order me a pizza (safe in the knowledge that it knows what I like and will ask me if it’s unsure, has my credit card details, and is happy to make decisions about special offers on my behalf where it has a high degree of confidence), we’ll probably already be at a point at which my local takeaway also has a chatbot on-staff, answering queries by Internet and telephone. So in the end, my chatbot will talk to their chatbot… in English… and work it out between the two of them.

Let that sink in for a moment: because we’ve a tendency to solve small problems often rather than big problems rarely and we’ve an affinity for backwards-compatibility, we will probably reach the point within the lifetimes of people alive today that a human might ask a chatbot to call another chatbot: a colossally-inefficient way to exchange information built by instalments on that which came before. If you’re still sceptical that the technology could evolve this way, I’d urge you to take a look at how the technologies underpinning the Internet work and you’ll see that this is exactly the kind of evolution we already see in our communications technology: everything gets stacked on top of a popular existing protocol, even if it’s not-quite the right tool for the job, because it makes one fewer problem to solve today.

Hacky solutions on top of hacky solutions work: the most believable thing about Max Headroom’s appearance in Ready Player One (the book, not the film: the latter presumably couldn’t get the rights to the character) as a digital assistant was the versatility of his conversational interface.

A man and a woman look at a laptop screen in a cafe/bar.
“See? My laptop says we should hook up.”

By the time we’re talking about a “digital concierge” that knows you better than anyone, there’s no reason that it couldn’t be acting on your behalf in other matters. Perhaps in the future your assistant, imbued with intimate knowledge about your needs and interests and empowered to negotiate on your behalf, will be sent out on virtual “dates” with other people’s assistants! Only if it and the other assistant agree that their owners would probably get along, it’ll suggest that you and the other human meet in the real world. Or you could have your virtual assistant go job-hunting for you, keeping an eye out for positions you might be interested in and applying on your behalf… after contacting the employer to ask the kinds of questions that it anticipates that you’d like to know: about compensation, work/life balance, training and advancement opportunities, or whatever it thinks matter to you.

We quickly find ourselves colliding with ethical questions again, of course: is it okay that those who have access to more-sophisticated digital assistants will have an advantage? Should a robot be required to identify itself as a robot when acting on behalf of a human? I don’t have the answers.

But one thing I think we can say, based on our history of putting hacky solutions atop our existing ways of working and the direction in which digital assistants are headed, is that voice interfaces are going to dominate chatbot development a while… even where the machines end up talking to one another!

The Web began dying in 2014, here’s how

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Before the year 2014, there were many people using Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Today, there are still many people using services from those three tech giants (respectively, GOOG, FB, AMZN). Not much has changed, and quite literally the user interface and features on those sites has remained mostly untouched. However, the underlying dynamics of power on the Web have drastically changed, and those three companies are at the center of a fundamental transformation of the Web.

It looks like nothing changed since 2014, but GOOG and FB now have direct influence over 70%+ of internet traffic.

Internet activity itself hasn’t slowed down. It maintains a steady growth, both in amount of users and amount of websites…

Living In The Future

Eurovision Night 2012.
Eurovision Night 2012. In a moment of surreal awesomeness, Matt R holds a mirror up to the webcam in order to show Gareth the collection of whisky that’s just outside of his field of vision.

Sometimes it’s really like we’re living in the future. Exciting new technologies keep appearing, and people just keep… using them as if they’d always been there. If tomorrow we perfected the jetpack, the flying car, and the silver jumpsuit, I’ll bet that nobody would think twice about it.

Recently, I’ve had two occasions to use Google+ Hangouts, and I’ve been incredibly impressed.

The first was at Eurovision Night 2012, which was quite a while ago now. Adam did a particularly spectacular job of putting together some wonderful pre-Eurovision entertainments, which were synched-up between our two houses. Meanwhile, he and I (and Rory and Gareth and occasionally other people) linked up our webcams and spare screens via a Google+ hangout, and… it worked.

It just worked. Now I know that the technology behind this isn’t new: back in 2004, I upgraded the Troma Night set-up in Aberystwyth to add a second webcam to the Troma Night live feed. But that was one-way, and we didn’t do sound (for lack of bandwidth and concerns about accidental piracy of the soundtracks to the movies we were watching, of all things, rather than for any particularly good reason). But it really did “just work”, and we were able to wave at each other and chat to each other and – mostly – just “share in the moment” of enjoying the Eurovision Song Contest together, just like we would have in person when we lived in the same town.

At the weekend, I was originally supposed to be in Lancashire, hanging out with my family, but owing to a series of unfortunate disasters (by the way; I’m walking with a stick right now – but that’s not interesting enough to be worth blogging about), I was stuck in Oxford. Despite torrential rain where I was, Preston was quite sunny, and my family decided to have a barbeque.

A Google+ Hangout with my family and I.
I join a Google+ hangout at my (late) father’s house, where the rest of my family are having a barbeque.

I was invited… via Google+. They didn’t have Internet access, so they used a mobile dongle plugged into a laptop. I connected in from my desktop computer and then – later – from my mobile phone. So yes, this was at times a genuine mobile-to-mobile multi-party video conference, and it was simple enough that my mother was able to set it up by herself.

Like I said: living in the future.

On This Day in 2040

Looking Forward

On this day in 2040 I first managed to get my Internet Time Portal working. It’s been a long time coming, but my efforts have finally paid off. The trick was just to run The Wayback Machine in reverse, which just required the integration of my flux capacitor with the webserver. Thankfully, Apache 5‘s plugin architecture’s made it pretty easy, but I’ve already talked about how time-travel/webserver integration works back in my blog posts at the end of 2039, so I won’t bore you with them all again.

Despite what I said about password security back in 2011, I haven’t actually changed the password for my blog in 28 years, so it was the obvious target for my first reverse-websurfing experiment. That’s why past-me will be surprised to find this article posted to his blog, now that I’ve connected back in time and posted it. And I know he’ll be surprised, because I was.

In fact, it was probably this moment – this surprising moment back in April 2012 – that first made me realise that reverse-chronological web access was possible. That’s why I spent most of the next three decades cracking the secret and finally working out a way to send information back in time through the Internet.

Looking Back

There’s so much potential for this new technology. I’m hoping that soon the technology will evolve to the point where I’ll even be able to use ancient and outdated Internet protocols like “Facebook” (remember that fad?) to actually communicate directly with the people of the early 21st century. Just think of what we can learn from them!

After the second coming of Jesus in 2028 resulted in the deletion the mysterious “Video R” from the entire Internet, as well as from the minds of everybody on Earth, we’ve only been able to speculate what this mysterious media contained. Whatever it was, it was something so offensive to our Lord and Saviour that He saw fit to wipe it from the face of the Earth… but you can’t help but be curious, can’t you? Of course, those of you reading this back in 2012 can still see the video, you lucky lucky guys.

The possibilities are limitless. As soon as I’ve finished making this post, I’ll be trying to make contact with the past version of myself and see if past-Dan is capable of looking up this Wikipedia article for me: for some reason I can’t get access to it now, in 2040…

This blog post is part of the On This Day series, in which Dan periodically looks back on years yet to come.

The Back Button

How did I get here?

While lying in bed, unwell and off work, last month, I found myself surfing (on my new phone) to the Wikipedia page on torsion springs. And that’s when I found myself wondering – how did I get here?

Thankfully, there’s always the back button: famously the second most-used bit of your web browser’s user interface. So… how did I come to be reading about torsion springs?

An anniversary clock, using a torsion pendulum, so-named because it only needs winding once a year.
  • I got there from reading about torsion pendulum clocks. My grandmother used to have one of these (an “anniversary clock”, like the one above, and I remember that I used to always enjoy watching the balls spin when I was a child).
  • I’d followed a link from the article about the Atmos clock, a type of torsion pendulum clock that uses minute variations in atmospheric temperature and pressure to power the winder and which, in ideal circumstances, will never need winding.
  • Before that, I’d been reading about the Beverly Clock, a classic timepiece that’s another example of an atmospheric-pressure-clock. It’s been running for almost 150 years despite having never been wound.
  • This was an example of another long-running experiment given on the page about the Oxford Electric Bell, which is perhaps the world’s longest-running scientific experiment. Built in 1840, it uses a pair of electrostatic batteries to continuously ring a bell.
The Oxford Electric Bell experiment. It's batteries have lasted for over 160 years, but I have to charge my mobile most nights: what gives, science?
  • I got to the Oxford Electric Bell from another long-running experiment – the one acknowledged as the world’s longest-running by the Guinness Book of Records – the University of Queensland Pitch Drop Experiment. Running since 1927, this experiment demonstrates that pitch is not solid but a high-viscosity fluid. A sample of room-temperature pitch in a funnel forms a droplet about once a decade.
  • Earlier, I was learning about the difference between the different substances we call tar. Traditionally, tar is derived by baking pine wood and roots into charcoal, and collecting the runoff, but we also use the word “tar” to describe coal tar (a byproduct of coke production) and bitumen (viscous, sticky crude oil).
  • I took the initiative to learn about those differences after reading about the name “Jack Tar“, an Empire-era slang term for a sailor in the Merchant Navy or Royal Navy…
  • …which in turn was linked from the similar article about “Tommy Atkins“, a term for a British infantryman (particularly in the First World War), which has an interesting history…
  • …to which I got from the “Doughboy” article. The Doughboys were members of the American Expeditionary Force during the First World War.
R.U.R. - "Private Robot" - loads an artillery piece.
  • Finally, I got to that first Wikipedia article while, when reading an article on The Paleofuture Blog, I wondered about the etymology of the term “doughboy”, and began this whole link-clicking adventure.

It’s fascinating to work out “how you got here” after an extended exploration of a site like Wikipedia (or TV Tropes, or Changing Minds, or Uncyclopedia – and there goes your weekend…). Thank you, Back Button.

I just wish I had a Back Button in my head so that I could “wind back” my wandering thought processes. How did I end up thinking about the salt content of airline food, exactly?

New Look, New Protocols

Oh yeah: I changed the look-and-feel of scatmania.org the other week, in case you hadn’t noticed. It’s become a sort-of-traditional January activity for me, these years, to redesign the theme of my blog at this point in the year.

This year’s colours are black, white, greys, and red, and you’ll note also that serifed fonts are centre-stage again, appearing pretty-much-universally throughout the site for the first time since 2004. Yes, I know that it’s heavier and darker than previous versions of the site: but it’s been getting fluffier and lighter year on year for ages, now, and I thought it was time to take a turn. You know: like the economy did.

This new design has elements in common with the theme before last: a big blue header, an off-white background, and sans-serif faces.
This new design has elements in common with the theme before last: a big blue header, an off-white background, and sans-serif faces.

Aside from other cosmetic changes, it’s also now written using several of the new technologies of HTML5 (I may put the shiny new logo on it, at some point). So apologies to those of you running archaic and non-standards-compliant browsers (I’m looking at you, Internet Explorer 6 users) if it doesn’t look quite right, but really: when your browser is more than half as old as the web itself, it’s time to upgrade.

I’ve also got my site running over IPv6 – the next generation Internet protocol – for those of you who care about those sorts of things. If you don’t know why IPv6 is important and “a big thing”, then here’s a simple explanation. Right now you’re probably viewing the IPv4 version: but if you’re using an IPv6-capable Internet connection, you might be viewing the IPv6 version. You’re not missing out, either way: the site looks identical: but this is just my tiny contribution towards building the Internet of tomorrow.

(if you really want to, you can go to ipv6.scatmania.org to see the IPv6 version – but it’ll only work if your Internet Service Provider is on the ball and has set you up with an IPv6 address!)

Working From Home

The phone rings. It’s clear to me by the sound it makes and by the image on it’s display that this is a business call.

“Good morning, SmartData; Dan speaking,” I say.

The caller identifies themselves, and asks to speak to Alex, another SmartData employee. I look to my right to see if Alex available (presumably if he was, he’d have answered the call before it had been forwarded to me). This is possible because of the two-way webcam feed on the monitor beside me.

“I’m afraid Alex isn’t in yet,” I begin, bringing up my co-worker’s schedule on the screen in front of me, to determine what he’s up to, “He’ll be in at about 10:30 this morning. Can I get him to call you back?”

Not for a second did it occur to the caller that I wasn’t sat right there in the office, looking over at Alex’s chair and a physical calendar. Of course, I’m actually hundreds of miles away, in my study in Oxford. Most of our clients – even those whom I deal with directly – don’t know that I’m no longer based out of SmartData’s marina-side offices. Why would they need to? Just about everything I can do from the office I can do from my own home. Aside from sorting the mail on a morning and taking part in the occasional fire drill, everything I’d regularly do from Aberystwyth I can do from here.


Back when I was young, I remember reading a book once which talked about advances in technology and had wonderful pictures of what life would be like in the future. This wasn’t a dreamland of silver jumpsuits and jetpacks; everything they talked about in this book was rooted in the trends that we were already beginning to see. Published in the early 80s, it predicted a microcomputer in every home and portable communicators that everybody would have that could be used to send messages or talk to anybody else, all before the 21st century. Give or take, that’s all come to pass. I forget what the title of the book was, but I remember enjoying it as a child because it seemed so believable, so real. I guess it inspired a hopeful futurism in me.

But it also made another prediction: that with this rise in telecommunications technologies and modern microcomputers (remember when we still routinely called them that?), we’d see a greap leap in the scope for teleworking: office workers no longer going to a place of work, but remotely “dialling in” to a server farm in a distant telecentre. Later, it predicted, with advances in robotics, specialist workers like surgeons would be able to operate remotely too: eventually, through mechanisation of factories, even manual labourers would begun to be replaced by work-at-home operators sat behind dumb terminals.

To play on a cliché: where’s my damn flying car?

By now, I thought that about a quarter of us would be working from home full-time or most of the time, with many more – especially in my field, where technology comes naturally – working from home occasionally. Instead, what have we got? Somewhere in the region of one in fifty, and that includes the idiots who’ve fallen for the “Make £££ working from home” scams that do the rounds every once in a while and haven’t yet realised that they’re not going to make any £, let alone £££.

At first, I thought that this was due to all of the traditionally-cited reasons: companies that don’t trust their employees, managers who can’t think about results-based assessment rather than presence-based assessment, old-school thinking, and not wanting to be accused of favouritism by allowing some parts of their work force to telework while others can’t. In some parts of the world, and some fields, we’ve actually seen a decrease in teleworking over recent years: what’s all that about?

I’m sure that the concerns listed above are still critical factors for many companies, but I’ve realised that there could be another, more-recent fear that’s now preventing the uptake of teleworking in many companies. That fear is one that affects everybody – both the teleworkers and their comrades in the offices, and it’s something that more and more managers are becoming aware of: the fear of outsourcing.

After all, if a company’s employees can do their work from home, then they can do it from anywhere. With a little extra work on technical infrastructure and a liberal attitude to meetings, the managers can work from anywhere, too. So why stop at working from home? Once you’ve demonstrated that your area of work can be done without coming in to the office, then you’re half-way to demonstrating that it can be done from Mumbai or Chennai, for a fraction of the price… and that’s something that’s a growing fear for many kinds of technical workers in the Western world.

Our offices are a security blanket: we’re clinging on to them because we like to pretend that they’ll protect us; that they’re something special and magical that we can offer our clients that the “New World” call centres and software houses in India and China can’t offer them. I’m not sure that a security blanket that allows us to say “we have a local presence” will mean as much in ten years time as it does today.

In the meantime, I’m still enjoying working from home. It’s a little lonely, sometimes – on days when JTA isn’t around, which are going to become more common when he starts his new job –  but the instant messenger and Internet telephony tools we use make it feel a little like I’m actually in the office, and that’s a pretty good trade-off in exchange for being able to turn up at work in my underwear, if I like.

Digital Sounds For Quiet Cars – I Totally Predicted This

The Economist has a story about a bill going through US Congress about the noise (or lack thereof) made by electric and some hybrid cars. For years, I’ve pretty much predicted this development. Only I meant it in a tongue-in-cheek way.

“Cars are getting quieter and quieter,” I’ve been heard to say, “And electric and hybrid cars promise to be quieter still. I’ll bet that someday, people will realise that these quiet cars are actually more dangerous than traditional, noisy cars with internal combustion engines, and at that point laws will be passed requiring cars to make a noise.”

“There’s already legislation that requires indicators to make a ‘tick-tock’ sound, since we did away with the relays that used to make the sound we associate with indicators. Cheap cars tend to make a shitty-sounding, very-obviously-synthesised sound. So, we can assume that cheap cars in the future will make the cheapest-sounding ‘engine’ sounds. You’ll hear them coming with a uniform ‘brum-brum-brum-brum-brum’ sound, or a grating ‘bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz’.”

“But cars are more than a means of transport; they’re a status symbol, and we already see people tricking out their wheels with glowy lights and things that make their exhaust pipes louder and fake spoilers. And as time goes on, the technology to make higher-quality synthesised sounds will make it into the cheap, chavvy cars. And what’ll happen when the cheap, chavvy cars get sold, with sophisticated built-in synthesisers? The same thing that happened when the cheap mobile phones became capable of playing sophisticated audio formats: custom ringtones.”

“Someday, within my lifetime, somebody will be run over by a car that sounds like Crazy Frog. And it will be both sad and hilarious in equal measure.”

Something we didn’t see coming a decade ago.