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The Religion of Data – Homo Deus

What happens when computers know us better than we know ourselves? What happens when they predict how we will act and respond accordingly, when they can answer all questions and can respond to any change faster than we can comprehend it?

To some degree it’s already happening – large amounts of the stock exchange are automated due to the speed advantage and people are consulting IBM’s Watson for health information. However, very soon all aspects of our life will be influenced or controlled in some way by computers. This is the message put across by Yuval Noah Harari in his latest book, Homo Deus. It is the follow-up from the highly regarded Sapiens. In the book, Yuval explores the future of humankind in a world that is increasingly being taken over by computers.

From page one this book is gripping as it explains ideas and concepts that, by nature, are incomprehensible to us. The book also doesn’t shy away from challenging itself – throwing in the classic argument of consciousness and emotion, robots always lose in films because of love, right? But what if our emotions are just algorithms, then one day our personal computer will know our next emotion before we even feel it, they’ll be able to choose a wife or husband better than we can, they’ll know how we’ll feel if we don’t wake up in time for the gym and can change things according to ensure we follow our true intentions. This makes you sound very predictable, doesn’t it? What about our free will, you might ask. We have the control to change our mind if we really want to – if you think this, please read the book. The argument against this was very interesting in my opinion (no spoilers from me).

The Contradiction

There is a rather obvious contradiction or conflict in this book – it starts by talking about the human desire to eternal life and that such things may be possible in the near future. We only need to extend our lives by 20 years, to then find a way to extend it 50 years, to then find a way to extend it 100 years and so on. That will create a world full of people, literally. If the population increases then we will clearly reach capacity, yet the book goes on to say “individuals will become4242 just a collection of ‘biochemical subsystems’ monitored by global networks”. The book offers no suggestion for how the overarching computer systems might respond to an ever growing population and whether their algorithms will deem ‘population control’ necessary for efficient operation. Sounding a bit like the robot uprising now isn’t it…

In short, this is a book that will make you think, and quite honestly I will say this is a must read! It is easy to look back in history to see how nieve and clueless humankind was to the changing world and today is no different, things will change in ways we can’t yet imagine, so why not start understanding the possibilities.

Quantity Makes Quality

“So, how common are badminton schools in Malaysia?”

I was referring to education institutions that are in place to educate up and coming badminton stars, whilst they would get an education, continuous badminton training ready to be the nation’s next best is by far the priority.

I posed this question whilst visiting the University of Malaya, a University well-known in Malaysia for its sport science program. The recipient of my question was their deputy director and member of Malaysia’s Olympic Committee.

“What do you mean badminton schools?” She replied.

I explained how I had always imaged kids being sent to sporting schools from a young age so that badminton would be a priority for them.

“We don’t have any here in Malaysia, perhaps in other Asian countries, but here everyone plays and trains at their local clubs and if they’re good enough they’ll move to the National training center.”

Another person in the room spoke up to explain how they got into badminton and that many start out socially and if they’re good enough they seek coaching, but really there is very little in terms of a National structure for grassroots development – essentially because everyone is already playing!

This shocked me as Malaysia is seen as one of the powerhouses for the sport, year on year they produce world class athletes and yet many countries with strong set-ups will suffer each year, perhaps getting one or two stars rather than a big squad.

After spending two weeks playing in Malaysia (it was actually my second visit to the country in 6 months) and speaking to many former state representatives that were on the edge of elite and national training I believe the way they get their quality is purely from a very, very high quantity of players and facilities. The campus we stayed on had a badminton hall, the adjacent campus also had one, behind the campus was a 10 court badminton hall, jump in the car for 10 minutes and you’re at a 22 court hall, head in the other direction and you’ll probably find the same. The number of badminton courts per square mile must be a ridiculous ratio, and what’s more is that the courts are always booked!

The same is true for clubs and teams, our campus had a team, the adjacent campus (which is for the parent University of where we were staying) had a team, we played against numerous local clubs and at a local academy. Every time the teams were made of very high standard players that were just playing socially. The volume is atonishing.

It makes sense that if so many people are playing so often then by probability you will get lots of stars – it’s the constant and ease of exposure to high-level badminton that increases all their levels rather than the need for a clear national structure.

What’s the point I’m getting at? Sometimes you just need a high quantity to achieve the quality you are after, repeating things over and over for practice is perhaps the best comparison for day to day life. It doesn’t have to be fancy to work!

Is Conversation The Best Way to Learn?

Think about some of the most important life lessons you know, think about how you overcame difficult situations, and about how you made a big decision. Chances are the platform for providing the information from these came from a conversation. You’re parents sharing their advice, your friend supporting you, and a mentor laying out your options.

It strikes me how much I gain from talking to others, how much my perspective can change, how much clearer a complex problem can become, or how much my feelings and thoughts can alter. Some people just come across as someone full of stories and knowledge and you know you could listen to them for hours on end, yet we don’t pursue it.

Ask people how they learn and they may say; by doing, by reading, by watching, by lectures (if at university). I’m not sure how many people will say they learn the most by talking to as many people are possible, yet it’s likely to be a key factor.

Conversation is interesting

A reason I think we learn so much is that we are more engaged in a conversation. Lectures, books, videos etc can be boring, let’s face it! We can lose focus, even when it is interesting simply because we aren’t engaging. By talking we are more aware and more likely to take board what is being said.

Conversation is faster

You can have answers and ideas in a heartbeat, sometimes you don’t even need to ask the right question, the other person just understands and can guide you. It can be hard to know what you need to know, right? So let someone else put the pieces together.

Conversation can be challenged

You can respond, push back, or go into more detail. Don’t understand, then you get clarification. Don’t agree, you challenge the opinion and either realise you had the wrong perspective or you help the other person reach a new viewpoint.

 

It’s a method of learning that we rarely actively pursue, yet it can be one of the best!

The Spaghetti Challenge

Today I had the pleasure of assisting at a STEM event, this time helping run the workshop – as the group was coordinated around an engineering theme, we decided to put them through their paces with the spaghetti challenge.

 

With 3 groups of 20 children, I think the main thing I learnt from running the workshops is that even with only two items – spaghetti and marshmallows – kids manage to create a huge mess!

That aside, this is actually a fantastic exercise to observe. Take one group, split into 5 teams and each team will follow different tactics; build fast, plan a lot, work individually and so on. The variety is huge, yet when you repeat with group 2, the patterns repeat! Again, one group will build fast, another will plan for half the time and another won’t talk to one another.

I’m not sure I can say that just one tactic was proven to be the best as each winning team behaved differently. However, as an outsider is extremely interesting to watch to see the teamwork behaviours, to see how they react when the tower falls and to see how keen they are to win or if they just want to eat the marshmallows.

As an overall study, it has been used time and time again to good effect. I will let this video explain that side of it 🙂

 

Comparison – should we do it?

Should we compare ourselves with others?

A quick google search and you’re met with the top 10 results, all titled and aimed towards providing tips on how you can, or should, stop comparing yourself to others.

It’s a principle and life secret that gets passed on to us as pearls of wisdom. “It’s dangerous” we’re told, “it can only make you value yourself less”. And I get, I’ve felt negatively when comparing myself to others. We only see their success and we interpret that to mean we’re failing. We wish we were doing what they were doing, achieved what they achieved, and so on.

It can lead to low confidence and lack of drive. But why do we have to have these results? Can’t we compare for the sake of good? Can’t we compare in a safer environment to help us? Yes we can! We just need to stop getting so caught up on the instant position and competition.

I still find myself constantly comparing myself to others. Sometimes I might think “my god I wish had done that” and for that moment I might be annoyed or disappointed. But then I realise, I can do that… so let’s do it. I can use comparison as a way of finding ideas for things to do or try. If I haven’t achieved something I haven’t even tried to achieve, I shouldn’t feel negatively when someone else achieves it.

It is also a good accountability check if you choose the right people. Find someone that might be comparing themselves with you. When they appear to be doing something better, remind yourself that they might be thinking exactly the same about you and instead of feeling inferior, you can feel equal yet ready to improve in some way.

You need to look past the instant competition facing you and use comparison as a tool to determine your next steps -and always remember there are many people admiring plenty of things about you!

Sharpen The Saw

I recently finished the book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’. There are many books that attempt to explain the secret to success, sometimes coming across far too practical; if you don’t for X or Y you won’t achieve Z. Whilst others are too vague and ‘spiritual’, giving no tangible actions – this book seemed to find the balance!

The book tells stories, gives examples, and provide frameworks to help understand and implement the habits. The whole book was very interesting; sometimes obvious, other times eye opening.

There’s one habit I want to talk about, habit 7: Sharpening the Saw.

Image result for sharpen the saw 7 habits

Essentially this habit is the ability to take a step back and re-charge to become for effective. The analogy is a workman sawing away at a tree. He is in the zone and working 100% efficiently, however, the saw it blunt. Someone suggests he stop and sharpen the saw. Scared of breaking his rhythm he angrily refuses, exclaiming he may never be as efficient again if he were to stop. Yet if he sharpened the blunt saw, he could chop down the tree in half the time, even with a slower motion. The principle makes sense!

However, there is another reason this habit sticks in my mind so clearly. A quote from Gary Vaynerchuk on ‘meditation and mindfulness’. (Jump to 21min 50sec)

Doesn’t this sound exactly like the workman? Or perhaps Gary really is superhuman 🙂

 

What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?

Today I helped with a school visit. Primary school children coming to 3M to learn about our technologies, try some challenges, and learn about careers. The latter is where I came in; sat down ready to talk about school, education, and how it all leads into careers.

I started with the usual; “how’s your day so far?”, “what are your favourite subjects?” etc. These were soon followed with the classic “what do you want to be when you grow up?”.

I was shocked by how quickly this question stood out as something ridiculous. What was I expecting them to say? Of course, they had answers, but they didn’t have a set plan or know what the job even involved sometimes. It’s a question we always ask children, sometimes far too seriously. Here’s the good and bad side of that question.

Bad – They felt ashamed when they couldn’t answer

Their heads dropped and volume lowered as they timidly said they didn’t know. They said it as if it was an incorrect answer, as if they would get in trouble. They believed they should know and be able to tell me exactly what they wanted to do in 20 years time. It’s obvious how ridiculous this is, yet for some reason they felt that way.

Those that knew spoke proudly about it.

Good – They still dare to dream

“Either a doctor or an 800m Olympian”, “a DJ”, “a robot builder”, “a world famous engineer”.

These were some of the answers that greeted me. I was shocked by the number of kids that wanted to be the best in their future career and actually thought they would be – and why not think that!

Ask them in another 10 years time and the answer might be a similar field but with less ambition or purpose, and that annoys me.

They don’t fear big ambition or dreams, they know they have a big future ahead of them and they are willing to say it! If only more of us could continue with that trait.

 

Perhaps it is good to ask the question, to people of all ages. But support uncertainty and encourage ambition. Nothing is certain, nothing is unachievable. The more we can encourage children to dare to dream, the more that actually will when they do eventually grow up.

I Don’t Care What You Think About President Trump

Today Trump became president. Whether I like him or not is not my topic for this blog, I have my view and I will share them if asked, but I don’t want to express them for no reason, politics causes lots of debate and we’d be a lot better off if we actually listened – that is in part what I want to share with you.

It has been a frustration to see the constant back and forth in the election process, with lots of aggressive views (mainly on social media), in fact this applies to many other ‘hot topics’. The frustration is that people refuse to believe their opinion is wrong and that the opposing people are stupid. Always keep in mind, people always think they’re doing good. Rarely to people act to extreme lengths with the motive to promote what they think is wrong. Both sides think they’re right.

So ultimately I want to use this blog to get you to watch this video and to pause the next time you see an opinion you disagree with. They think they’re right and so do you, so how can you actually work around that to make progress rather than forcefully tell someone they’re wrong even if they actually are.

How Ed Sheeran Won With Snapchat

Over the last 12 months, Snapchat has really cemented itself are one of the top social media platforms, for use at least with up to 150 million active users daily.

However, it’s also been a bit of a marmite platform for business. Some hailing it as the go-to place for cheap and successful marketing, others saying it doesn’t have a wide enough demographic and its metric are useful for calculating ROI.

I sat in the first camp, I’ve loved Snapchat and always thought it is a hugely untapped platform for any business use or promotion. The question in my mind has always been, ‘how’s best to use it?’. You can use it as a general user, communicating with fans, customers etc, share a ‘story’ to send communications to all of your user base, or create sponsored filters so all users within your specified area.

All have their pros and cons, some are authentic but lack reach, others have the reach but scream of sponsored content which can be a turn off for end users.

However, with some creativity, the perfect strategy for your content can be found, and I believe Ed Sheeran (or his team) has done exactly that.

Just the other week I was playing around on the app, checking out the new filters as they change quite often. I scrolled through the ‘sponsored’ filters impressed to see what was there, but knowing I wouldn’t use them. I then came across a new filter, sunglasses with background music. A concept very similar to a pre-existing and very popular filter, but with a change in music and style of glasses, I promptly recorded and sent a snap of me bobbing along to the beat.

No wording, no sponsored badge, just the graphics. I beat of the song however stuck in my head, I had no idea what it was or who it was by, but I liked it. I used the filter quite a few more times over the following days until one day I heard the same beat playing on the radio. I quickly found out that the song was a new release from Ed Sheeran – Shape of You. The song has been a huge success since release, becoming the UK number 1 straight away and I believe the filter is a big reason.

Firstly, the hardcore fans recognised it was him straight away and took to social media to share the tease of his new sound, creating a huge online buzz even before release. Secondly, for other listeners like myself, it got the song into my head without any pre-judgement of who it was by. I loved the song before I’d heard more than 30 seconds and so as soon as the full song was released I was listening straight away, I don’t I’d be so hooked without that first interest.

So why I am I sharing this. In my opinion, this is a PERFECT example of how to be clever with social media. It’s not about making a sale straight away, it’s about building a buzz ready for the bigger thing.

In case you missed the filter, here’s a video of it being used – sadly it’s no longer live.

Practice Does Not Make Perfect

A conversation this week reminded me of my drum teacher back at the ages of around 13/14.

“Practice does not make perfect, practice makes permanent”.

Hardly a lesson went by without him saying this phrase. Perhaps it was the because of it’s repetition, but it really stuck with me.

“Perfect practice, make perfect. It’s will be no use you going away and practising it incorrectly, you’ll come back being able to the play the beat with your eyes shut… but it will be wrong!”

It stuck with me because it makes complete sense. You can just magically become perfect at something through repetition – you’d be insane to think that, according to Einstein at least.

So why’s this variation so important? Well, to me it highlights the need to control all the other variables that can help achieve ‘perfection’. Of course, practice is a huge part, but so is coaching/teaching/mentoring; someone who knows what perfection looks like and can direct you toward it, someone that will correct the faults and introduce the next steps. I believe it also emphasises the need to questions things, if I was practising a beat on the drums I had to stop and ask myself “was the correct?”, “how should  these notes be played?”, “is the timing right?”, asking such questions not only helped me improve what I was playing, but it also helped me to understand why things happened, so if I saw a piece of music in the future with similar note patterns, I might have a good idea of how it should sound.

Practice must be carried out with intent and validation checks to ensure you’re not practising the wrong thing, otherwise you’re really just wasting time.

 

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