From slide rule to calculator app to…ChatGPT?

On a shelf in the Badger’s home office is a pristine British Thornton slide rule in its original case. It hasn’t been used in years. In fact, it’s hardly been used since the Badger bought it during his first week as a university student because it was a recommended tool for his subject. Various friends have poked fun at it over the years, jauntily calling it – and the Badger – a relic rendered obsolete by first electronic calculators, and latterly apps on smartphones. Nevertheless, a friend recently gifted the Badger a vintage slide rule instruction pamphlet to ‘complement this Museum piece’! The gift was accepted graciously. It heightened awareness not only that anyone born since the 1970s will never have used a slide rule, but also that the student Badger had actually hastened this tool’s demise by buying a pocket electronic calculator as soon as they became widely available and affordable.

The slide rule’s 300-year reign as a personal calculating tool ended abruptly in the mid-1970s. By the time the Badger had completed his degree, every student on his course had bought a Sinclair Cambridge, Sinclair Scientific, or Texas Instruments electronic calculator. When youngsters josh about the slide rule on his shelf, the Badger reminds them that Buzz Aldrin used one during the Apollo 11 moon mission, and scientists and engineers used them when designing, building, and manufacturing the first computers. They are often amazed, but always respond by highlighting the virtues of the calculator app on their smartphone.

Reading the vintage slide rule pamphlet reminded the Badger that his purchase of an electronic calculator as an undergraduate was an early part of the microelectronics revolution that’s changed every aspect of life since. Reflecting today, it seems amazing that personal calculating devices have morphed from a tactile, non-electronic slide rule into a calculator app on a smartphone reliant on microelectronics to function. Of course, what’s happened to personal calculation devices is merely a specific example of the massive impact that rapid technological advance has on our lives.

Today the Badger’s slide rule is a decorative bygone. His most recent electronic pocket calculator is also infrequently used and languishes in the desk draw because the calculator app on his smartphone has become his default pocket calculator. But even use of this app is waning! Why? Because just speaking to Google or Alexa does straightforward maths. The days of needing a calculator app thus seem numbered, especially if AI like ChatGPT ultimately has the impact that Microsoft anticipates. So, here’s a thought to end with. While the Badger’s slide rule will always be an antique talking point sitting on someone’s shelf, an obsolete calculator app will just disappear into the ether and have no decorative value whatsoever. Hmm, perhaps the Badger needs to stop reading the instruction pamphlet and drink less coffee…

‘Read Aloud’ is no match for the natural intelligence of the human brain…

Somewhere on your tablet, laptop, or desktop you may have created a folder or sub-folder to store general items that you think are interesting and might be of use at some stage in the future. The content may, for example, include information and pictures accumulated over time from websites, items from social media or streaming services, and interesting facts, figures, and slides from presentations given by others. If, like the Badger, you have such a folder then the content probably languishes there rarely used. That’s certainly true for Badger who this week came across a subfolder of old ‘that might come in handy’ items while doing some overdue hard-drive housekeeping.

Most of the subfolder’s old content was moved to the Recycle Bin, but one 15-year-old item from the internet was a reminder of the marvel that is the human brain. That item was simply the following paragraph of misspelt words. See if you can read it.

Fi yuo cna raed tihs, yuo hvae a sgtrane mnid too. Cna yuo raed tihs? Olny smoe plepoe can. I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheeachr at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, mneas taht it dseno’t mataetr in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproarmtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whotuit a pboerlm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Azanmig, ins’t it? And you awlyas tghuhot slpelnig was ipmorantt!

The majority of people can read and understand this jumble, and the reason why is in the jumble itself. The human brain is magnificent.

On finding this item, and with Artificial Intelligence seemingly everywhere these days, the Badger wondered if the ‘Read Aloud’  function in Microsoft Word embodied ‘intelligence’ that matched his brain’s ability to read and speak the jumbled words coherently and correctly. After turning auto correct off to type the jumbled words into Word, hitting ‘Read Aloud’ on the toolbar resulted in the words being spoken exactly as written, that is in a babble as if they were an obscure foreign language! Clearly any artificial intelligence in ‘Read Aloud’ doesn’t match the natural intelligence of the human brain.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is, of course, a broad field. It’s also a field in which marketeers liberally associate their products with AI when actually it’s an algorithm rather than ‘intelligence’ at the heart of their product. So, what does the Badger conclude from his simple test? Simply that even though AI seems to be a dominant theme at this year’s CES event in the USA, the human brain remains streets ahead when it comes to true intelligence. And long may that be the case…

Time for ‘manned’ Space missions to be curtailed?

It’s 30 years since the ‘Pale Blue Dot’ picture of Earth taken by Voyager 1 as it left our solar system. When reading about it, see here and here, the Badger was struck by the obvious fragility of our existence on a planet that’s barely a speck of dust in the Universe!

The picture caused the Badger to if our Space ambitions align with the interests of human life and our planet. The oversight of projects involving very talented ‘Space techies’ developing software for interplanetary missions, earth observation, and satellite control featured many times during the Badger’s career, and it’s pictures like the ‘Pale Blue Dot’ that are good reminders to stay realistic about ‘Space – the final frontier’. It’s right that we should have ambitions, dreams, and scientific knowledge pertinent to Space, but it’s also right to regularly wonder if we have our priorities right. This decade sees US astronauts return to the Moon and a raft of other missions led by different countries and commercial organisations. There’s a view that Space is the new ‘Wild West’ and that ‘Space has shifted from a place purely to ‘go’ to a place to do business’. Hard to disagree! The global Space market will double to ~£400 billion by 2030, so this decade could see Space really become the ‘Wild West’ given it’s no longer the preserve of just governmental agencies but of private companies jockeying for position and commercial advantage as well.

Staring at the ‘Pale Blue Dot’, the Badger cogitated on our Space priorities given the importance of preserving life and our speck of dust in the Universe. After doing some reading, perusing recent items like those here, here, and here, and some research on how Space impacts our bodies, the Badger quickly formed an opinion. Unmanned Space exploration makes sense and helps the scientific and engineering advancement needed to benefit human life and our planet, but manned Space exploration is an expensive holy grail because biologically and psychologically we are designed for Earth and do not adapt well to extended periods in Space. What’s the point in putting humans in Space at vast expense when robots are better suited to the hostile environment? As the video here concludes, using robots will tell us more about our planet and the solar system, whereas using astronauts tells will tell us mostly about ourselves.

Has the time come for man to curtail manned Space exploration and use the money for urgent human life and on-Earth planet sustainability initiatives instead? The Badger thinks ‘probably’. Just an opinion…you should have one too! Surely The sustainability of humans on our ‘Pale Blue Dot’ is much more important to us, our children, and our grandchildren than man in Space will ever be. After all, a Wild West in Space in the coming years is no use to anyone if we, or our speck of dust, disappear.

Robots in Nursing Homes…

The Badger’s immediate priority in 2020 so far has been dealing with the health and care of a frail, 91-year old, father in moving to a nursing home after a lengthy stay in hospital. This transition went better than anticipated and the Badger’s respect for all the health and care professionals involved has reached new heights. They have been magnificent. A transition to a nursing home becoming ‘home’ is, of course, difficult for any person, especially when they have medical, mobility and dementia issues but still desire full independence, but the staff have been great and have eased the process for everyone.

If you have dealt with a similar scenario then you’ll know that it makes you aware of little things that can improve the patient’s quality of life and the bigger things that would help carer’s in their work. Useful items of simple technology are available that can help with the former – see here and here, for example – and robotic pets might ultimately help some people in the future! Regarding help for carer’s, however, the Badger’s observation is that technology that helps to safely move the human body during the daily routines of life will provide the biggest help. There has been robotics research in this area for some time, and robot advances in nursing home settings is moving apace in Japan, gaining more momentum across the developed world, and receiving investment from the UK government. If the Badger becomes resident in a nursing home in a few decades time, then a robot will inevitably play a role in getting him out of bed!

A young digital native in the Badger’s family made the following comment after the Badger’s father had been in his new home for a week:

‘There’s no point in me having a laptop, tablet, smartphone, Alexa or online games when I get old because I’ll forget what they are and how to use them. Talking to someone will be more important’.

The Badger wouldn’t put it quite that way, but the comment was very insightful!

The right robots will undoubtedly help in a residential care environment, but in the Badger’s opinion they will never replace the humanity shown by the special people who really care for their vulnerable and high-dependent residents. The Badger ’s father readily responds to people who engage him with encouraging words, a touch of a hand, a smile, a wiggle of the nose or a wrinkle of the face, and a joke or some banter. Robots  that help care staff should get more profile and investment, but it’s people and the humanity of their interactions that really makes a difference in our twilight years. So, bring on the robots, but not as a replacement for the special people who look after us when we can’t look after ourselves…

Automation, AI, and recruitment interviews…

The Badger’s interviewed many people seeking employment in IT services over the years. It started with interviewing new University graduates as part of the early UK ‘milk round’, and extended into interviewing very experienced technical, delivery and line people as the Badger’s leadership responsibilities grew. If the Badger learned just three things from all this interviewing it was this. Firstly, that a CV is the candidate’s tool to stimulate an employer’s interest, but its content cannot be taken for granted. Secondly, meeting the candidate face to face is crucial, and thirdly, that good candidates have sensible expectations because they recognise their IT skills quickly become tomorrow’s commodity.

Why’s the Badger thinking about this? Two reasons. Firstly because young nephews are encountering today’s digital, AI-supported automation in the world of recruitment, and secondly because of reading the assessment of occupations at risk from automation published by the UK Office of National Statistics earlier this year.

Digital automation and AI continues to grow rapidly in the realm of recruitment (Here, here and here provide readable appetisers, for example). Within a few years, it looks like today’s youngster generation will be psychometrically tested, have their video and audio interactions digitally analysed, and possible have their public social media presences appraised like no previous generation before when they seek employment. It’s possible to foresee a time when youngsters will never actually physically meet anyone during a recruitment and interview process. Will that actually happen? Hopefully not, because nothing’s more powerful for an employer and a candidate when making an employment decision than physically meeting someone, shaking their hand, looking them in the eye, and having a dialogue that can go down unexpected avenues.

So, what’s the relevance of the ONS reference? It simply highlights the following. The percentage of HR resource leader and HR operations jobs at risk from automation is 28.2% and 58.01%, respectively. If you work in IT then at least 1 in 4 of the management consultants (27.09%), project managers (24.49%), architects and designers (28.4%), and call centre staff (54.83%) reading this today could be redundant in the coming years. Even 23.62% of Chief Exec and senior officials are at risk from automation! So, it’s not just youngsters like the Badger’s nephews who will be analysed like never before when they seek employment in the modern way, you will too!

If you lose your job through automation and AI, then it’s automation and AI that’ll be a significant factor in getting alternative employment! Make sure you understand how recruiters and employers use automation and AI and prepare yourself appropriately. Always meet a prospective employer face to face before accepting a job. Shake their hand, look them in the eye, and make sure that you’ll be working for a human being rather than a robot…

‘Techlash’…’Backlash’…An inevitable part of the lifecycle of progress…

A copy of New Scientist from early 2018 caught the Badger’s eye while sitting in a waiting room recently. It looked out of place in the pile of well-thumbed healthy living, home, and gardening magazines, but it was much more interesting to read. As expected, it contained a plethora of interesting snippets on a variety of science and technology topics, but one short piece about ‘techlash’ – the growing disgruntlement with giant technology companies – struck a particular chord. The article may be 20 months old but it’s still relevant, as are similar Economist and Politico items of similar vintage.

Techlash’ continues. Today everyone has more awareness of the ugly side of tech from giants like Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google and Chinese equivalents, and even more snail-paced European and US politicians are demanding tougher regulation and controls. None of this should be a surprise. Why? Because most things that are initially lauded to be good for business, people, or society eventually suffer some kind of ‘backlash’. Fossil fuels, plastics, deforestation, privatisation, globalisation, outsourcing and offshoring are cases in point. All have at some stage over the years been viewed as ‘good for business/society/people’ and have made helped raise living standards, but they’re now all subject to question or a ‘backlash’ of one kind or another.

So, what’s at the heart of this lifecycle of ‘progress’ followed by ‘backlash’? Human psychology. In particular, our herd instinct and desire for social conformity, as this short video neatly illustrates. We tend to go with the herd to stay safe, and when the herd gets spooked and changes direction for whatever reason then we do too!

The Badger returned the New Scientist to the magazine pile and then read a news item about AI and robotics on his smartphone. It made the Badger not only think about the Terminator films and the recent ‘I am Mother’ film, but also conclude that some kind of ‘backlash’ against AI and robots is inevitable in the future!

‘Backlash’ and ‘techlash’ are words that describe antagonistic reactions to problematic trends, developments or events. Such reactions are a response to a problem, and where there’s a problem there must be a wrongdoer to blame! So, who creates the problems that spawn any ‘backlash’ or indeed the current ‘techlash’? Look in the mirror and you’ll see the culprit. If we as individuals took more time to think, resisted the herd by being truer to our own feelings, instincts and beliefs from the outset, then the world will be a better place for everyone. The chances of that happening? Slim – because we are human.

Has ‘Tech’ made life ‘better’ today than it was at the time of 9/11?

9/11 happened 18 years ago. Most people will always remember what they were doing when it happened. The Badger was at work dealing with a major IT programme when the phone rang. It was the Badger’s young son wanting reassurance that his father was safe and not working in a London skyscraper! Reassurance was given, and the Badger then visited the BBC’s news website and was horrified by what he saw.

This year’s 9/11 anniversary and a recent BBC radio interview with Brad Smith from Microsoft triggered some musing on how far digital tech has changed life since that auspicious day in 2001when:

• There was no Facebook, Twitter, or Google News, Gmail, or Google Maps.
• The USA had only just made GPS signals available for civilian use.
• Microsoft XP and the first Apple iPod had just been released.
• There were no Apple iPhones or Android phones and digital cameras were rare.
• Satnavs didn’t exist and there were no Smart Meters or Smart Motorways.
• Drones were the domain of the military and were not available on the High Street for the general public.
• Music and films were purchased mainly as CDs or DVDs.
• The first commercial 3G mobile networks were only just becoming available.
• The dot.com bubble was bursting.
• Widespread IT outsourcing and offshoring was in it’s infancy.
• Our data was very much in our own hands.

How things have changed! Think for a few minutes and it’s apparent that tech and social media proliferation have provided ‘convenience’ for the average person but at the expense of privacy, disruption and perhaps freedom. Are we freer with a better quality of life today than in 2001? Life is certainly different, but it’s difficult to answer ‘yes’ when instant misinformation, manipulation and distortion abounds, and giant organisations know where you are, what you sound like, what you buy, your likes and dislikes, and sell your data for commercial gain. Ethics and regulation have not kept pace and so it’s heartening to now see Microsoft’s President saying sensible things about ‘tech firms stopping their ‘‘if it’s legal, it’s acceptable’ approach’ , AI ethics and weaponization. But will anything really change with such powerful vested interests involved? Let’s see.

It’s sobering to realise that those born at that time of 9/11 are now entering the workforce, or going to University, as fully-fledged digital natives whose life data is already extensively in the hands of others. That wasn’t the case for 18-year-olds in 2001. Tech and social media have made the lives of today’s youngsters ‘different’ to the 18-year-olds of 2001, but are their lives actually any ‘better’? Has tech really made the world a better place than it was in 2001? Try debating that at a dinner party if you want some fun. The most interesting views will emerge after copious amounts of wine…

Recycle your hoarded personal tech…

The Badger recently helped move someone to a new house. Moving not only forces the emptying of cupboards to reveal what’s stored away and forgotten about, but also decisions on what to keep, dispose of, recycle or give to charity. The move went smoothly, and emptying cupboards filled a number of boxes with old hoarded tech, cables, mobile phones, and so on.

The move coincided with media coverage of a Royal Society of Chemistry study that revealed consumers have millions of old gadgets stockpiled in drawers at home which, apparently, isn’t helping the growing shortage of some of the elements used in today’s smartphones and tech. The Badger’s interest was piqued, and – with the owner’s permission – a rummage through the boxes of discarded devices crystallized three thoughts.

First, if these boxes are typical, then to think that consumers have ~10 unused devices and cables stockpiled in their homes is an underestimate! The boxes contained many old cables, mobile phones, chargers, keyboards, mice, digital cameras, pocket PCs and PDAs, MP3 & CD/DVD players, handheld electronic games, console handsets, old eBook readers and much more. Anyone of the Badger’s generation or younger will have similar things hoarded in the dusty corners of their homes!

Second, most of the hoarded devices still work! For example, a Compaq IPAQ Pocket PC from 2001 running Microsoft Pocket PC fired into life like new when connected to its mains charger, and its 18-year-old software provides email, contacts, diary, internet browsing, Word, Excel, etc, much like today’s devices. Technology has, of course, improved since 2001 seeing these old devices still working makes you realise that clever marketing makes us adopt ‘the next piece of tech wizardry’ way before its necessary. These old devices still have some functional as well as recycled precious metal value.

Third, if discarded personal devices still work then they are useful to someone else. Yes, parents sometimes pass old phones to their kids, but why do we ultimately hoard devices rather than pass them onto other relatives, friends or charities? In the world of personal tech we need to be more aware of the RSC study’s findings and their Reduce, Reuse, Recycle message.

A few days after the move, the Badger watched a TV programme about environment activists. One of the interviewees said very preachy things that grated because they too will have discarded cables, tech and phones at home! The Badger has concluded that we consumers – and environment activists – need more awareness of the shortage of the precious elements in our tech and smartphones. Some elements could be exhausted within decades, and if we don’t promptly recycle our discarded personal tech the number of forthcoming robots we can build might be constrained. Hmm. On second thoughts, perhaps the Badger will put his old Blackberries at the back of a dusty cupboard after all…

A Tidy-up leads to ‘Privacy Rebellion’…

The Badger’s performed a much overdue tidy-up of his home office and more mementoes, defunct gadgets, old books, reports, and papers were found than anticipated. It started as a quick tidy-up but morphed into an archeological dig that triggered fond memories and wonderment. It’s amazing what accumulates in nooks and crannies!

Three things of note found were a 1999 Company Annual Report, an associated 1999 slide set from the company Leadership Conference, and a Palm Pilot from the same era. Tidy-up progress slowed while the Badger read the Report and the slides because in 1999 the company was a market leader in SMS and data transmission to mobile phones, and part of the slide set covered the future of mobile phones. Today, 20 years later, the company doesn’t exist, and the Badger’s smartphone hugely exceeds the vision painted in the slides. It reminded the Badger that company’s come and go and just how much information and mobile technology has changed our lives. And the Palm Pilot? Well the dust was wiped off…and it still works! The Badger’s wife wants these items to be recycled, but they’ve just been moved from the office to a nook and cranny in the garage. She doesn’t know this yet!

During a short break in the tidy-up, the Badger’s wife sighed philosophically and commented that ‘Technology has driven lots of good in the last 100 years, but the negatives have always been down-played until they’re blindingly obvious and cause everyone to run around demanding change. In the next 20 years it’ll be the same in the digital world.’ She elaborated a little with ‘Oil, nuclear, cars, planes, antibiotics, plastic, and palm oil have advanced our lives, but it’s only recently that everyone’s realised their impacts are unsustainable. People are fickle, it’ll be no different with AI.’

A fair point perhaps? The Badger nodded playfully and added that ‘data’ was the future critical commodity, and that there could be a ‘privacy rebellion’ when the general public fully appreciate that the conveniences provided by the Internet of Things and AI could mean the current concept of a private life disappears. Impish speculation, of course, but items about voice recordings (here, here and here) and facial recognition (here and here) just illustrate the need to be wary of what goes on behind the tech in our homes or on the street.

So, there you have it – a tidy-up leads to the prospect of a ‘privacy rebellion’. Why not have an office or man-cave tidy-up of your own? It’s therapeutic, you’ll reminisce, you’ll find gadgets you didn’t know you had, and it could even spark a philosophical discussion with your partner about the future. But best of all…you might get brownie points from your partner for recycling, even if you’re really just moving things from one nook and cranny to another…

The Moon, Mars, and the next giant leap for mankind…

Apollo 11 lifted off for the Moon 50 years ago today. Some things in life make an impact that never fades from memory, and the Apollo 11 mission and Neil Armstrong stepping onto the Moon’s surface made an indelible impression on the Badger who, as a young boy, watched ‘as it happened’ on an old, black and white TV. It was gripping stuff from launch through to return, but two memories are particularly vivid: Armstrong stepping onto the moon, and the tension as mission control tried to re-establish communications after re-entry to Earth.

The moon landing was a magnificent science, engineering and management and leadership achievement, all of which is celebrated in many diverse 50th anniversary articles – one is here . For the Badger, the achievement is reinforced today by knowing it happened pre-internet, pre the existence of Microsoft and Apple, and pre any of the tech at our fingertips today. It was an unequivocal example of what humans can do when science, engineering, management and leadership are fully aligned to a common objective.

The Badger’s been wondering about the next ‘giant leap for mankind‘ and was intrigued by a view that we have no choice but to colonise Mars if human beings are to have a future. The Badger’s rather doubtful that man on Mars is really a priority or the next giant leap for mankind. Why? Because the scientific monitoring of astronauts shows that scary things happen to the human body in space (see here and here, for example). The Badger – who is admittedly not a biologist – thinks this ultimately implies that our species will never really be suited to interplanetary travel without serious biological re-engineering! If that’s right then the case for humans on Mars seems dubious, especially if the advance of robots with artificial intelligence that we hear so much about in the press means we could send them instead!

Apollo 11 inspired the Badger to become a scientist and engineer, and for many years one of the mission’s photos was the screensaver on the Badger’s laptop. Any scientist or engineer thrives on the type of challenges posed by putting a man on Mars, and there’s no doubt that stepping onto Mars would be a thrilling broadcasting event watched by billions. But is it the next giant leap for mankind? Hmm. The Badger thinks the next giant leap isn’t on another planet, it’s on this one. We know lots about our home planet and what we’re doing to it and so the Badger thinks the next giant leap for mankind is when all countries really unite to ensure our beautiful planet, and all life on it, is sustainable for future generations. This, unlike putting a man on Mars, does not come with an event that can command a TV audience of billions…