Tuesday, July 28, 2015

How nine heuristic rules, a handful of points, links, and curves, and some historical parallels all come together in a serial

Some of you have started reading the serial novelet by me over at Light Reading, "Silence Like Diamonds." Episode 1 came out last Friday; as I write this, Episode 2 is a few hours from being officially live, and that link should already be working for anyone who likes that "advanced peek" feeling.

While the serial lasts, I'm going to try to say something around the time each episode comes out.

The whole trick with this "credible near future" stuff is arithmetic and minimum times. Yip and her sister Yazzy are somewhere in their mid thirties at the time of the story, since each of them have established careers in a difficult field, but they're not grizzled old veterans, and what they actually do for a living (more about that in a future blog) is an occupation that doesn't fully exist in 2015.

The story is set around 2030, plus or minus maybe two years. So right now, Yip and Yazzy are going to some university and will graduate within a couple of years. They're at the young end of Millennials or the old end of Generation To Be Named.

So that's who they are: your kids (if you're my age), the summer intern where you work now, perhaps your students, maybe you on your first real job (assuming you just grabbed your first foothold on the tech ladder).

Now what about the world they're in?

The idea of near-term hard sf is to try to move things out of the lab into the real world, not to pull wish-fulfillments and sheer magic utterly out of fantasy. So this version of 2030 has no city on Mars, no hoverboards, no indistinguishable-from-people androids, no immortality injection and no franchise called "Just Fingers" that specializes in regenerating appendages for accident victims.

The time it takes from research results being announced to full commercial deployment varies a lot more than the time from early 20-something to experienced mid-30s, but there are some predictable aspects to that as well.

Here are nine of my favorite tricks for guessing how far  into the future the deployments of new technologies are:

• Everyone lies about how close lab-only things are to going into application, prototype, and production. It's essential for getting funding, after all. So things that are just being shown off in lab tours now, and are supposed to be shrink-wrapped and delivered next year, will probably happen in three.
 •home products come in at very high cost and fall rapidly in price, deploying swiftly as they do (some of you will remember when a smart phone was called a Blackberry and was a symbol of trendy wealth). It was a long, long trip from the Altair 8800 to the Apple IIe, TRS-80, and Commodore 64, about ten years to get to 5% market penetration -- but ten years after that, the home computer was ubiquitous and a majority of students going off to college were taking a computer with them.
•software and mathematical breakthroughs deploy all but instantly, because it's really just a matter of a proficient coder understanding what the math/logic says and writing it in valid code, and the transition from "one smart coder" to "a hundred thousand script kiddies" is nearly as quick as cut and paste.(This is particularly obvious in data science, where, for example, the time between a mathematician developing a new technique and a package to perform it becoming available in R, SAS, MySQL, etc. is measured in weeks rather than years).
•new business models flare up, go dormant, begin to grow quietly, and then suddenly have already taken over. "Oh, them, they're certainly trendy ... hey, they're still around but it's not exciting like it was ... gee, every year they have more market share, I wonder if ... I, for one, welcome the new masters of our humble economy..." For many years entrepreneur-coaches have used the example that anyone can make a better hamburger than McDonalds but making a better business model is something else again; I'd go farther and say that often even long after there has been a spectacular success, it's very difficult for most companies even to plagiarize a great business model. So no matter how advanced the tech, it will still have to be distributed via a large number of companies that don't know what they're doing, don't do it very well, and really aren't sure what they should be doing.
•"the street finds it own uses for technology," as William Gibson taught us all. Just the other day I saw an ad for a singing teacher who offers rates for "in person or Skype." I very much doubt that the developers of Skype intended that, any more than the developers at Google, Amazon, YouTube or Craigslist had any idea what else they'd be doing in the world. Whether it's as humble as WD-40 and duct tape, or as high end as DNA sequencing and nuclear magnetic resonance, somewhere out there someone will make it do something its creators never thought of.
•exponential growth without limit is exciting for sci-fi writers, but it is vanishingly rare; far more commonly, what looks like an "explosion" is merely the middle part of a logistic curve,
Wil McCarthy wrote a pretty funny alternate history a few years ago by treating the 19th century explosive growth and  connectivity of railroads as if the curve had been exponential rather than logistic. John Hersey's famous My Petition for More Space is another exponential that should have been logistic, about population growth (where do people in that world find time and space to do all that reproducing, and what exactly are they eating?). Infamously, the city of New York forecast in 1894 that within a few decades, all its resources would be needed just to haul horse manure out of the city (as we all know, this didn't happen to New York. It happened to Washington and Hollywood). The exponential curve may be fun and dramatic and sexy, but the logistic one is the one to bet on. What's growing rapidly today may saturate tomorrow and become as common as phones.
•almost as fun and entertaining as exponential growth is the often-forgotten possibility of reversal.  Nuclear arsenals grew at apparently exponential rates for more than a decade, but today there are only about as many as there were in 1960.

Certain high-fashion products show similar patterns: plumes for ladies' hats, plus-fours, and white plastic go-go boots.  And in the larger scale of history, there are the concluding lines  from Andrei Amalrik's Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? (written in 1969, another attempt at a 15 year forecast):
Meanwhile, we are told, Western prognosticators are indeed worried by the growth of the cities and the difficulties brought on by the rapid pace of scientific and technological progress. Evidently, if "futurology" had existed in Imperial Rome, where, as we are told, people were already erecting six-story buildings and children's merry-go-rounds were driven by steam, the fifth-century "futurologists" would have predicted for the following century r the construction of twenty-story buildings and the industrial utilization of steam power. 

As we now know, however, in the sixth century goats were grazing in the Forum just as they are doing now, beneath my window in this village. 
What appears to be growing exponentially today may tomorrow reverse and become as dead as cassette tapes.
•"Information wants to be free" was not about politics, as is clearly shown by the very next sentence Stewart Brand spoke: "Information wants to be expensive." The root of this contradiction is that the value of information depends on who else has it and what they do with it, changes whenever it moves, and is catalytic for an enormous number of other processes. Information behaves rather like money with an unreadable expiration date or a randomly tested transaction limit; every time you gain value from it you risk making it worthless, and inevitably, sooner or later, something does.
•forecasts about coming ages and changes in human culture are generally rooted in observed truth, but nothing ever comes out as predicted. Robert Heinlein made up a nice little parable about the lab where they created four escape paths of exactly the same difficulty from a cage and put an ape in to see which one he'd use; the ape escaped the fifth way. Collectively, humans are that fifth-way ape; we often have some idea of where we're going but we rarely go there by the way that seems obvious, and when we get there, it doesn't look like much like what we thought it would.

I used all those tricks at one point or another in devising a world for "Silence Like Diamonds," but for the moment let me just talk about one way I used the last one.

You may have run across the currently-trendy notion of the Internet of Things, the idea of having almost everything in your physical environment wired to talk to almost everything else in the house. Eventually, presumably, your car (which is driving you home while you finish some paperwork) phones your house. It alerts the air conditioning that you are hung up in traffic and to delay coming on till you clear that bottleneck on the interstate. The refrigerator and blender start making up something soothing (and the fridge issues a call so that the drone from the local ice cream store schedules a restocking delivery). The music player queues up the "calm and happy" mix, the shower starts warming water in the reserve tank, and so forth. 

But even away from home, your phone records (by checking RFIDs or their successors) all the things you look at in the store, and reports it to the store chain's intelligence system (with the phone company collecting a small fee).  Face recognition software in half a dozen businesses around your workplace pick you up from security cameras and know what way you take from the parking lot to work. Knowing who walks by and what they like, stores on your route put more clothing you like in their windows. 

All the gadgets in your life gang up to make you happier.

It always strikes me that in most such scenarios, we assume that the human being is a petty tyrant having a bad day. The machines either sound as if they are living in fear of our rage, or acting as very large comforting invisible nannies who will have our milk and cookies and a big hug ready for us no matter how bad the world has been, or like a neurotic parent desperately trying to please a tantrum-prone jaded brat.  It all seems very infantilizing.

Compounding that infantilization, to give you everything you really want, before or at latest when you want it, an Internet of Things has to know everything you want or might want, including the wants you can't admit to and the wants you haven't felt yet and the wants that are only just emerging from the creative software of the marketing people. The liberal-feared surveillance state and conservative-feared nanny state are both much less intrusive than the probably-purely-commercial instant-gratification state. But of course, it's all much less scary because it's not about preventing you from doing what you want (like the cop on every corner), or making you do what someone else wants (like the nanny in every bedroom). No, not at all.  It's about always giving you what you want as soon as you want it, and knowing enough to do that.

Like Santa. Remember, he sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake ...  (As Allan Sherman remarked, who did he think he was, J. Edgar Hoover?)

So you've got a world that runs on the ability for everyone to quickly know anything that is public -- and the value of keeping information private is astronomical. The relationship between cybersecurity and security breaches becomes something like the relationship between health care and death: you can buy huge amounts of the former, and make the latter very unlikely, but the reaper (or the hacker) always wins in the long run. In such a world, the number and variety of communications security services and systems is going to go through a "Cambrian explosion" -- the evolutionary phenomenon that when there is a drastic increase in the variety of niches, all sorts of strange things grow, making more niches in which more things grow --

Until the reversal, or until the first derivative of that logistic curve starts to bend downward.  There, that ought to be a cliffhanger to hold you for a while ...

Friday I'll probably talk a bit about the drones that have been a big part of the plot so far, since I've gotten a few emails about them in the last couple days. After that ... well, information wants to be expensive.  And time is money.  So after a bit more time, more information.