Autonomous ships…

Smart meters, smart phones, smart televisions, smart home security cameras, smart central heating, smart lighting, and smart white goods are commonplace in today’s world. We also regularly encounter smart motorways and ever-smarter vehicles as we go about our daily lives. All of this just illustrates that no aspect of our lives is immune to the relentless advance of digital technologies. However, while most public interest and mainstream media attention tends to focus on things that either do or will have a direct personal impact on the majority of us, there are many advances underway that get much less airtime. Autonomous ships seems to be one such area.

Some months ago, while examining the forecast timeline for the mass adoption of truly autonomous (driverless) cars on public highways, the Badger came across something that triggered more personal interest in progress towards autonomous ships. It was the online dashboard of the Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS), a 15-metre-long research trimaran recreating the historic Mayflower voyage of 1620 from Plymouth in the UK to the USA , but with no humans on board! MAS, built by Promare and IBM, and packed with sensors, AI, and autonomous technology, has not been without problems, as you can see here. Nevertheless, it has now reached North America, all be it Halifax in Canada rather than the USA, and it’s been possible to monitor its vital signs and footage from its cameras via the online dashboard throughout the journey across the Atlantic.  

MAS’s journey will undoubtedly have added to the learning and knowledge essential for scaling up to the much larger autonomous ships of the future. Smart technology on large ships already has a lot of traction and Hyundai, for example, announced just a few days ago that it was the first to pilot a ‘large autonomous ship across the ocean. The ship was fully crewed and while much of its journey was under the control of autonomous technology, much of it was not. Realistically, the days of truly autonomous civilian shipping with no crew aboard are still some way off. As might be expected,  however,  in the military domain the development of small and large autonomous vessels for naval forces has been progressing steadily. Indeed, the USA, for example, has this year created an unmanned vessel division within its Navy, and is recognising a need to build a fleet of autonomous platforms to counter threats from other superpowers.

It’s inevitable that autonomous civilian and military ships will be a feature of life for future generations. Unlike autonomous cars and aircraft, they don’t seem to attract the same level of interest in the mainstream media and general public, which the Badger finds a little surprising given the UK is an island nation and taking a cruise holiday could one day mean travelling and living on a ship that has no crew!

And when peace comes, remember it will be us, the children of today, to make the world of tomorrow a better and happier place

This was the penultimate sentence of the 14-year-old Princess Elizabeth’s radio address to children of the Commonwealth on the 13th October 1940.  Many of the children listening were, like the Badger’s father, evacuees living away from their home in challenging circumstances. Now Queen and celebrating her historic Platinum Jubilee, the Badger was reminded of the truth of these words while a spectator at the London Rugby Sevens at Twickenham last Sunday.

When the Princess spoke in 1940, radio was essentially the main technology in the vast majority of UK homes. Her words to children unexpectedly resonated with the Badger during an interval as the tournament progressed in the huge, noisy, atmospheric stadium. Why? Because for many spectators it was a family occasion with lots of children present, and everyone, young and old alike, had personal devices with them providing instant connectivity to the world beyond the stadium. Seeing nearly every child using smartphones and tablets to capture and share on-field action and off-field interactions with players was a huge reminder that technology has revolutionised the lives of children since 1940. Together with the harmony between spectators of different races, colours and creeds in the stadium, the tournament provided a very positive and happy experience for the children present. It must have made a lasting impression that will influence their shaping of the better and happier world of tomorrow!

On the train home afterwards, the Badger listened to a podcast about the future evolution of society. A group of teenagers, about the same age as the 14-year-old Princess Elizabeth in 1940, sat close by staring at their smartphones and chatting with each other without lifting their eyes from their devices. The chat exposed their interests and priorities, and their aspirations to be social media influencers, and it seemed at odds with the podcast discussion and content. This made the Badger wonder if the Princess’s ‘the children of the day will make the world a better and happier place’  is still true when it’s the voices of older generations that get most mainstream airtime today.

Of course, it’s still true. In fact, the words are even more true today because the internet, social media, and powerful personal computing devices have put instant communication, influence, and content in children’s hands in a manner that did not exist in 1940. Today children are using this capability to habitually influence the evolution of the society they want much more rapidly than was possible in the past. Technology has not undermined the Princess’s sentence; it has reinforced it.

The 14-year-old Princess became a Queen now celebrating a historic Platinum Jubilee. Well done, Your Majesty, and thank you for your true public service throughout an era of huge technological, social, national, and international change. Your words to children in 1940 are timeless. Let’s hope that today’s children strive to implement them with much vigour in the years to come.

Smart Warfare…

The Badger recently saw an elderly pensioner clash with an Extinction Rebellion (XR) activist at a demonstration in London. The clash triggered the Badger to think about ‘smart warfare’ and reminded him that anything prefixed with ‘smart’ might mean ‘clever’, but it doesn’t necessarily mean ‘good’ or ‘beneficial’.

‘Can you zealots stop blocking my way please’, the pensioner asked politely. ‘I’m not a zealot; I’m a climate activist engaged in smart warfare’, the activist replied with a sneering arrogance. The pensioner responded indignantly with ‘I’ve been climate and environment conscious for years, so you should be ashamed about being at war with me when it’s the big countries in other parts of the world that have the biggest impact on the planet’s climate’. With that the pensioner pushed past the activist blocking their way. With a derogatory hand gesture, the activist turned their attention to someone else. The activist believed they were engaged in ‘smart warfare’, but to the Badger they seemed to be illustrating the polarising, fixated, tribal behaviour that is prevalent in today’s world.

The phrase ‘smart warfare’ tends to trigger thoughts of ever-evolving advanced military weaponry and a future of cyber warfare, swarms of drones, and robots. The activist’s use of the phrase, however, illustrates that ‘smart warfare’  is really modern-day terminology for the centuries-old execution of power over people using whatever clever tools and techniques are available. Tools range from extreme physical violence to the most subtle psychological techniques that enable one mind to influence and control another. Yes, clever advances in technology broadens the tools available and changes how wars are contested, but truly ‘smart warfare’ requires more than just technology, it requires clever, effective, and inspirational leaders, and committed and united people. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shows that subjugating a population takes more than advanced ballistic, information, cyber, economic, and propaganda weaponry. It’s people that conduct ‘smart warfare’ not technology, and people will always find ways to resist against the odds regardless of the clever technology in use.

As the XR activist’s use of the phrase illustrates, ‘smart warfare’ has broadened beyond the military domain into the routines of normal life in our globally connected, online world full of misinformation, disinformation, processing of personal data, and location and preference tracking. When you buy a traditional newspaper from a shop, there’s no record of the articles and adverts you look at or share with other people, your opinions, other people you associate with, or whether something in the paper prompted you to make a purchase or change your behaviour. The opposite is true when we use the phones, tablets, and laptops that dominate life today. ‘Smart warfare’ is thus a routine aspect of life today because organisations are using clever tools to analyse this information to wield power over us! With this in mind, always use the apps on your phone, tablet, or laptop wisely…

From Self-driving cars to the Thought Police and Big Brother…

As widely reported, for example here, here and here, a Law Commission of England and Wales report recommends a new system of legal accountability for vehicles with self-driving capabilities, anticipating the future when vehicles drive themselves for a part, or all, of a journey without a human driver paying attention to the road. When the vehicle’s driving itself, the Commission recommends that the ‘human driver’ is immune from prosecution if anything goes wrong. Instead, liability will rest with the company or body that produced and approved the vehicle and its technology for use.

The Badger read this while taking a break from entertaining his energetic grandson who’d tired himself out and was having a nap on the sofa. The mass use of completely driver-less cars at level 5, a nirvana for some, is still years away, but the report illustrates that there’s more than technology to be addressed if vehicles with higher levels of self-driving capability are to be introduced and used safely on busy public road networks.

Three thoughts came to the fore. The first was that at the higher levels of self-driving capability, cars are like aeroplanes for the roads, and so manufacturers and operators will need to adhere to airline industry-type standards in order to keep vehicle occupants safe. The second was that enormous amounts of data needs to be stored and available for use as evidence in insurance claims and legal disputes when there are, for example, accidents. Who stores it and where? Who has access to it and under what circumstances? How is privacy and personal freedom protected? The answers aren’t yet clear, at least to the Badger. The third was that insurance companies will progressively find ways of minimising their liabilities as the higher levels of self-driving cars become commonplace in the mix of traffic. The Badger has thus resolved to henceforth read his motor insurance policy terms with a laser-like legal focus on renewal every year! Overall, it seems clear that the requirement for a vehicle to have a human driver will be with us for a very long time yet.

The move towards driver-less cars is just another example of how the relentless march of technology means the toddler sleeping peacefully on the sofa will grow up in a world with similarities to that in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.   That’s an uncomfortable thought, but for all the conveniences and benefits, the internet and digital revolution of recent decades has eroded privacy and made surveillance in society easier. The Badger’s wife chided him for being gloomy before confidently saying that our grandson will grow up to be a scientist or engineer solving life’s real problems and won’t worry about such matters. The Badger chuckled. Regardless of his career choices, the toddler already has the rebellious independence and intelligence that means he will never succumb to the Thought Police and Big Brother!

Notable events, Weather & Sport – News

The Badger spent most of last week hospitalised in a (non-covid) ward bay with five others from various backgrounds and with a range of ailments. With everyone laid up without family visits, a ‘Band of Brothers’ spirit and strong camaraderie quickly developed. There was lots of time for personal observation, contemplation, and collective discussion on a myriad of topics. One of the key things we all quickly realised, however, was not only the huge benefit that having a smartphone or tablet provided, but also the corrosive effect of the perpetual information that’s a feature of the modern world.

Everyone had a smartphone or a tablet computer with them on admission. The devices, connected to free NHS Wi-Fi, were our personal critical infrastructure for regular voice and video contact with family, browsing the internet, streaming music, and listening to podcasts, radio, and TV. They were our sole conduit to the outside world. However, while everyone in the bay had different interests, internet browsing patterns, and different affinities with social media, it was quickly evident that every one of our ‘Band of Brothers’ distrusted anything they saw or heard via their devices that purported to be news-related!

As one of our illustrious band pointed out, we’re bombarded today by stuff  that  purports to be news, but which is really just a stream of mania, ignorance, babble, bile, character assassination, vendetta, and envy, all of which just spreads confusion, fear and anxiety throughout society. It’s hard to disagree! The reporting of a  truly ‘notable event’ in news is no longer crisp, clear and factual because it’s intertwined with misinformation, speculation, and distorted gossip polluted by social media, celebrity,  and hidden agendas. The internet and the smart devices in our hands have rendered traditional purveyors of news old hat. Even institutions like the BBC struggle to separate fact from fiction and to be impartial. The BBC TV News Channel has been in decline since 2012, and in 2019 Facebook was the third most used news source in England.  OFCOM’s 2020-21 annual report on the BBC also shows that audiences continue to question the BBC’s impartiality.  

The Badger’s hospital stay starkly brought home that news has become a mishmash of skewed information, sound bites, dubious analysis, gossip, celebrity, and organisational agenda rather than fact. Harsh, perhaps, but that’s what all in our ‘Band of Brothers’  felt! The ‘Band of Brothers’ are now all at home and looking forward to Christmas, thankful for the benefit their personal tech provided in hospital, but defiantly against  the babble and unproductive mania that confronts us every day. We made a pact! If  Santa Clause comes under threat, then we’ll start a revolution! And on that note, the Badger thanks you for reading his musings in 2021 and wishes you and your families a happy Christmas and a productive 2022.

5G, Satellites, Synthetic fuel, and Thomas the Tank Engine…

There are mornings when your head is so full of things that it takes a few moments to converge on your priorities. Yesterday was one such morning for the Badger, although it wasn’t long before the fog cleared to reveal the main priority was simply to prepare for looking after his toddler grandson for the day. This meant ensuring that our collection of well-used, hand-me-down Thomas the Tank Engine books was to hand because the stories are key to getting the little whirlwind to occasionally sit still. The Badger reads the stories regularly because his grandson laps them up and loves the various characters, especially Thomas himself, the engines Gordon, James, Percy, Emily, Toby and Whiff, Harold the Helicopter, Bertie the Bus, and The Fat Controller who runs the railway on the island of SODOR.

It was while preparing for the toddler’s arrival that the Badger saw a couple of news items about the Satellites for Digitalisation of Railways SODOR project, see here and here. Put simply, this project will demonstrate the integrated use of 5G and satellite constellations to improve train monitoring and mobile connectivity for passengers. It took the Badger enormous self-discipline, however, not to map the various SODOR consortium members onto Thomas the Tank Engine characters! After stifling a giggle, the Badger decided it’s an interesting project, but just one of many that illustrate how technological progress is relentlessly changing our lives.

The Badger then wondered what Wilbert Awdry, who created the Thomas stories decades ago, would make of the modern world. Awdry died in 1997 and since then puritans, the entertainment industry, and social media’s corrosive indoctrinators have insisted on changes to his stories and characters for the sake of today’s world of political correctness. The Fat Controller, for example, is today deemed problematic language, which is just plain daft when its contemporaneous of its time and the author was a vicar. It won’t be long, no doubt, before someone demands that all Thomas and his friends must convert from coal-fired steam to electric, the passengers must have smartphones, and the island of SODOR is completely automated. Awdry would rightly think the world’s out to destroy the originality and charm of his stories and characters.

As the Badger read Harold the Helicopter to the attentive toddler soon after he arrived,  he realised that that Harold might escape a conversion to electric due to recent news of a RAF flight using a climate-friendly synthetic fuel. His grandson, of course, is too young to care about such matters, but the world that he’ll grow into has freedom of speech and freedom of expression tempered by an intolerance of the past, and a head-spinning list of do’s and don’ts about what’s acceptable. Society needs a return to rationality and common-sense for the sake of all toddlers, and Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends…

Technology has redefined normal life…

A century ago, the world started emerging from the Spanish Flu pandemic that followed World War 1. After years of turmoil people wanted change, and the 1920s certainly provided it.  A century later we’re emerging from another pandemic, and the 2020s looks destined to be transformational too. History might repeat itself!  For most people, of course, life today is very different to that in the 1920s. Scientific and engineering advances, and especially the internet and information revolution of recent decades, have put technology at our fingertips and redefined what constitutes normal life for most of us.  

Just how much normal life in the UK has changed since the 1920s can be illustrated, for example, by reflecting on the motor car. In the early 1920s when the UK population was ~40 million, there were only 383,525 cars .  By 1930 the number of cars had risen to 1 million with ~ 7,300 annual road deaths. Today the UK population is ~67 million, and there are 33 million registered cars and around 1800 annual road deaths.  The first traffic light on a road appeared in the mid-1920s, and driving tests became law in the mid-1930s. Cars of the 1920s were ostensibly fuelled mechanical devices owned by a tiny minority of households, whereas today they are essentially fuelled electronic devices with mechanical components which are owned by nearly every household.  Roads are also vastly different, and its amusing to think that any concept of a ‘Smart Motorway’ suggested in the 1920s would have been considered as the ramblings of a lunatic.   

The car and it’s embedded technology has become an essential in the average UK person’s life in less than a century. It’s not only changed the landscape and infrastructure of our country, but also become a fundamental part of our personal freedoms. The 2020s will see cars become powered by electricity, filled with ever more technology to control our driving habits, and become taxed differently to compensate for the reduction in the £28 billion annual revenues currently generated fuel duty on petrol and diesel.  The car as a metaphor for technology has redefined what constitutes normal life over the last 100 years, and that redefinition will continue throughout the 2020s.   

However, there’s something that hasn’t changed since the 1920s, namely primeval human behaviour.  Today’s global connectivity and social media platforms readily bring the most unattractive aspects of this to the fore for all to see. That’s a worry, because the end of the 1920s saw the Great Depression, and if history repeats itself then we could see some similar crisis at the end of this decade, triggered perhaps by a serious failure in the world’s technology infrastructure. If this were to happen, then primeval human instincts will take over and the ensuing anarchy might highlight that life without cars and modern technology is actually survivable, just as it was in the 1920s a century ago

Welcome to the metaverse…

As the Badger walked to the local High Street to meet friends, the heavens opened dumping lots of rain on anyone without a coat or an umbrella. Luckily, the local train station was just along the road and a quick sprint for its shelter meant a complete soaking was avoided. Sheltering with others in the station’s ticket hall, the Badger messaged his friends to say he’d be late, and then browsed his smartphone’s news feeds until the rain stopped. Everyone in the ticket hall was doing something similar. In fact, the bedraggled crowd looked like something from a zombie apocalypse, but without any blood.  

A news item entitled ‘PC, internet, smartphone: what’s the next big technological epoch?’ caught the Badger’s eye. Its content answered the question by building on a core 2014 suggestion that the tech/IT industry has evolved through three ‘epochs’, each defined by a core technology and a killer app. The three epochs, in time order, were the advent of the PC, the internet, and mobile computing now epitomised by today’s smartphone. If this last epoch is now peaking, then what’s the next epoch technology for the industry? One possibility suggested is metaverses, a term covering a range of virtual realities covering the workplace, entertainment, and community platforms.  Facebook, apparently, wants to become an online metaverse, but that, in itself, is enough to be wary about a metaverse future.   

As the rain eased, the Badger decided it’s unlikely that metaverses, a word that sounds like marketing technobabble, are the next epoch technology. If they are, then we will have to let companies use even more of our data and also accept a further erosion of personal privacy. Many of us will be reticent about doing this given experiences with social media over the last decade. It also seems unlikely that most of us would want to live our personal and professional lives in virtual worlds when, as the pandemic has shown, we crave the touch, smells, textures, physical interactions with friends and colleagues, and the normal rhythms of the real world that we inhabit.   

The rain stopped, and the Badger resumed his journey, walking briskly and dodging the puddles. Just as the destination came into sight, the heavens opened again.  With mother nature exercising its power with another climate change cloudburst, wondering about the next big epoch in the tech industry felt like an irrelevance. A damp Badger finally arrived and chatted with his friends over coffee. None of them are in the least bit interested in metaverses. One, who’s proud of being ‘a digital native and a digital dinosaur’, pointed out that real life is about much, much, more than bits and bytes manipulated by clever hardware and software. They are so right. It’s very hard to see how metaverses can be an epoch technology that will make real life much better.  

Drones, dinosaurs, and a private life…

The impressive choreographed light display that employed more than 1800 drones at the Tokyo Olympics’ opening ceremony is becoming a common sight at high profile events.  A friend’s daughter, who starts university in September, asked what many will have wondered while watching, ‘How did they do that?’  The Badger chuckled when she glibly answered her own question by saying ‘Someone’s probably doing it all from an app on their iPhone’.

Drones have all shapes and sizes, work in different ways, and perform many functions in today’s civilian and military life. Indeed, drone swarms will play an important role in military conflicts in the years ahead.  Watching the Olympics’ drone display, however, provided a visual reminder of just how far computing, software, and communications technology has advanced since the New York 9/11 atrocity 20 years ago. Most internet connections were clunky and slow at that time, and the internet itself didn’t dominate our lives. Broadband was in its infancy, flash drives (USB sticks) were uncommon, and Sharp, Samsung and Nokia had barely released their first camera-phones. Skype, YouTube, Google Maps and Streetview, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon Kindle, iPhones, and iPads didn’t exist, and most people visited real shops to do their shopping! It’s a very different world today, but not necessarily a better or safer one. 

The friend’s daughter cannot imagine life 20 years ago because all kinds of digital technology has been available at her fingertips throughout her childhood, teenage, and now her adult years. She’s a complete digital native who has become, perhaps, more reliant on technology’s conveniences than is healthy. She routinely calls the Badger and her parents ‘dinosaurs’ but she always listens respectfully when her parents point out that privacy at the time of 9/11 was very different to the concept of privacy that exists today. An individual was less technologically ‘monitored’ 20 years ago, had a true private life, and chose what to share with others, when to share it, what medium to use, how to share it, and with whom. Sharing was a conscious, physical, act. Technology has since changed the concepts of personal privacy, freedom, and independence, and has made those born this century the most ‘monitored’ generation ever.

The friend’s daughter knows that powerful forces in the online world know more about her life, habits, and location than for any previous younger generation, but she still wants most aspects of a private life that her parents enjoyed 20 years ago. Her parents rubbed salt into the topic of what constitutes a private life today by observing that ‘We’ll soon be able to tell Alexa to send out a swarm of drones to find out what you’re up to anywhere in the world’.  This didn’t go down well with their daughter responding vociferously that she’s entitled to a private life! Indeed, she is. But it won’t be the type of private life that was once enjoyed by ‘the dinosaurs’.  

All-lane running motorways and electric car breakdowns…

The Badger often flicks through the television channels before retiring for the night. It’s a habit, and it’s rare that something grabs the attention sufficiently to delay bedtime. One night recently, however, the ‘Smart Motorway Committee’ on the BBC Parliament channel proved an exception. A yawn was stifled as the channel was sampled, but the Badger was suddenly hooked when one of the politicians on the committee asked senior representatives from the Police, motoring, and haulage organisations, a clever question. It was this: ‘If your loved ones were driving on the motorway, or you were driving with your loved ones as passengers, which would you prefer it to be a) a controlled motorway with a permanent hard-shoulder lane, or b) an all-lane running motorway with refuge areas that could be more than 800 metres apart’.  

The politician asked for their personal opinion, not that of the organisation they represented. The respondents each plumped for (a), explaining their choice in terms of the human reality and anxiety of breaking down surrounded by live traffic lanes when young children, the disabled, or elderly parents are on board and refuge is some distance away.  To ensure smart motorways are safe, Highways England, of course, are currently implementing the 2020 Stocktake and Action Plan, and their recent report continues to make the case for all-lane running, all be it with further technology-centred  safety improvements. However, as the respondent’s answers illustrate, it’s obvious that people remain unpersuaded that foregoing a permanent hard-shoulder lane is wise.

Although it was late, the Badger’s programme delivery, IT, systems, and risk management experience and instincts kicked into gear with the following point bubbling to the fore.  Smart motorways were conceived mainly to increase traffic capacity and reduce congestion. It feels like ‘safety’ is being bolted on to avoid facing up to a possible uncomfortable truth, namely that all-lane running motorways may not have been such a good idea in the first place. With this point on his mind, the Badger turned off the television and retired for the night.

The next morning a chance conversation, when the Badger was told about someone’s experience of a new electric car that stopped working on a railway crossing, seem to reinforce this point.  The Badger hadn’t really appreciated the difficulty, which can get a sense of here and here, in moving electric vehicles if they stop functioning for any reason. It appears that the days of getting people to help you push it to a safer place are gone!  What will happen when the mix of electric cars on all-lane running motorways is substantially higher than today and more of them breakdown?  Even more expensive technology seems to be the answer to everything these days, but it feels like it would have been better, safer, and cheaper never to have ditched permanent hard-shoulder lanes in the first place!