Monthly Archives: September 2009

The Future Now: two talks at TEDxTuttle

At last week’s TEDxTuttle, there were two talks, one after the other, about future technology now.

One was by P.W. Singer on the future of robotics in warfare. It was fascinating but also disturbing: it showed that a lot of weaponry now uses robotics devices, often controlled from bunkers thousands of miles away by people who are familiar with computer games. Much of this technology is available to anyone – not just large nation-states, but terrorist organisations and, probably, individuals. Singer’s point was that we need to think very carefully about how we uese this technology, and that it isn’t a decision to be left to generals or politicians – the way we allow the state to fight wars on our behalf, and the extent to which we allow them to dehumanise the enemy to enable killing affect us all.

It is a chilling, fairly pessimistic video. Perhaps it’s just that I don’t like video games.

Next up was a live presentation by Rachel Armstrong. (There is going to be a video of her talk on the TEDxTuttle website, I think.) This was a real contrast to Singer, hugely optimistic and forward-thinking, about how we can use synthetic forms which mimic life to help solve some of the problems faced by the world. These are non-living things like micro-organisms (they looked a lot like slime molds to me) engineered to have specific properties. Armstrong envisaged incorporating these into building materials to create a climate control system, for instance, or creating forms which remove CO2 from the atmosphere and deposit it as solid carbonates – she said it would be possible to make these photo-phobic, for instance, so one could seed the Venice lagoon and create chalk reefs which would support the crumbling foundations and stop the city falling into the water.

This felt like the very stuff of sci-fi. And despite the optimism, I couldn’t help thinking about the unintended consequences of technology. For instance, one hundred years ago, the industrial revolution was seen as the huge driver for economic growth and the western world was being radically changed by the internal combustion engine: it is only with hindsight that we know the harm done to the planet by pollution and greenhouse gases.

My first thoughts were how would we control these non-life organisms? How would we stop the chalk-creating creatures from growing a reef in Venice so that the canals became pavements? Armstrong said the growth of these synthetic organisms was currently controlled by energy sources – they stop without food; and in the absence of any genetics or true metabolism, they cannot change or evolve; but she also said that these were early, early days in this research – who knows what we might create in the next fifty years.

I then got to thinking about both sessions together: Armstrong’s synthetic life-forms could clearly be used for good – to combat climate change, to secure buildings, to provide fertiliser to barren landscapes; but what if they were engineered to do harm, by a state or terrorist group (or a mad scientist squirrelled away in their underground laboratory…). Engineered micro-organisms from AIDS through SARS to swine-flu are the stuff of conspiracy theories; but a lot can be done with bio-engineering. Consider what malicious powers – ours or anybody else’s – could do with synthetic materials which don’t require complex genetic engineering.

So it was a fascinating couple of sessions; but it provided a chilling glimpse of the future now, too.

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Banks, bonuses and performance…

I have been trying to write a coherent post about banking and its “bonus culture” since I wrote about the regulatory mish-mash several weeks ago. Everytime I sit down to do it, I realise that the political landscape has changed once more as governments and regulators seem to try to outdo each other with another misguided intervention or more unthought-through proposals. The continued media obsession with bank bonuses just seemed to further muddy the waters.

Then the FSA has published its review of remuneration practices in financial services which states

[it aims to] promote financial stability through removing the incentives for inappropriate risk taking by firms, and thereby to protect consumers…
fundamental changes in the approach of many financial firms to remuneration will be needed if we are to be confident that we have laid a solid foundation to avoid future crises. Equally important will be changes in attitudes and behaviours on the part of employees…
Our Remuneration Code is not going to change the ‘bonus culture’ overnight. That is going to take time…

Indeed.

I believe governments are not best placed to determine an industry’s or a company’s pay structure – that should be left to shareholders and the market. (There is added complexity because in many places throughout the world, governments are now shareholders in banks.)

Picking out a single profession to vilify seems wrong – the politics of envy are very active: if it is wrong for bankers to make lots of money, then why not manage everyone’s salary? Although economists reckon this isn’t really a good idea, however attractive it might be for voters.

There I was, trying to make sense of all this, when I saw Dan Pink’s TED talk on reward and motivation at TEDxTuttle last week.

I would highly recommend that you watch Pink’s talk yourself, so I won’t describe the talk in detail. (I really liked his style, though some people I spoke to thought it a bit over the top!)

Essentially, though, he describes how most of the models which businesses use to reward, incentivise and motivate their staff are severely flawed. Starting with the candle problem – an experiment from 1945 – and modern variants which showed that for some problems requiring creative solutions, performance decreases as the rewards for success are increased.

Then he discussed this 2005 paper by Dan Ariely, a professor at MIT, and others, which looks at incentives and performance in a variety of different situations. And was funded by a branch of the US Federal Reserve Bank. As the abstract says,

psychological research suggests that excessive rewards can in some cases produce supra-optimal motivation, resulting in a decline in performance… With some important exceptions, we observed that high reward levels can have detrimental effects on performance.

This of course flies in the face of common beliefs, behaviour and practice: our culture is programmed to think of financial rewards as one of the major factors motivating performance. If one believes governments – and the FSA – the “bonus culture” within banks was a major contributing factor to the economic crisis and credit crunch. It is certainly the one getting the most attention.

And it does need to change: because it doesn’t work.

Pink saves his energetic ire for this bit: the people that manage banks – primarily the regulators (such as the Federal Reserve and the FSA), but also the remuneration committees and the reward teams of the big banks (and, frankly, every other organisation) – should have known that their bonus policies were likely to have “detrimental effects on performance”. By paying people such large bonuses – the stuff that politicians and the media have been going on about for months – these financial institutions may have been contributing to their own downfall.

Now we can really be angry: not because we are envious, or think high bonuses are morally wrong, or think it bad that someone gets paid more than the Prime Minister – but because they should have known the damage they were doing.

OK, perhaps an academic paper that’s less than five years old might not have filtered through to those reward experts; but the regulators should have been telling them.

Pink finished off his talk by briefly mentioning “rewards-only work environments (ROWE)”, a system of management apparently resulting in high performance and high employee satisfaction in which employees are paid for what they do rather than the hours they work. Something I think I shall have to return to…

First thoughts on TEDxTuttle

(photo by Benjamin Ellis on flickr)

Thursday afternoon saw me venture to TEDxTuttle, a cross between TED and Tuttle Club. I expect that a lot of you know about TED – if not, it is a series of conferences and presentations, many of which are freely made available on the TED website; there are many, many fascinating presentations – I have spent a lot of time watching TED videos! I have written about Tuttle several times before: it is a lose, unstructured, weekly gathering of like-minded people who talk about stuff.

People at Tuttle have often talked about bringing more structure to their discussions, and Alan Patrick had the idea of doing this by having some live, TED-like talks and showing some TED videos.

The TED strapline is “ideas worth spreading”, and judging by the debate the TEDxTuttle gathering generated at the time and the way I have been talking about it to people since, TEDxTuttle clearly succeeded. I am hoping to write about specific sessions from the afternoon, so these are my general thoughts of the day, filtered through a couple of days thoughts…

For me, it worked very well. For the video sessions, sitting in a room with a bunch of people watching a clip brought a discipline lacking when I sit watching a TED talk on my PC: I paid more attention without the distraction of constant coffee, radio, games, whatever… It brought human element to it, as well, as one picked up on the mood in the room.

That said, I think the live sessions brought more to the party, if only because I knew I could have watched the video sessions elsewhere. (OK, the live sessions were all being recorded and will be made available some time.) They were new, fresh and exciting.

The team who organised the afternoon did a great job of curating the sessions. The first block of talks was futuristic, featuring new thinking; the second block somewhat apocalyptic; and the last brought things back to a personal level, leaving us on a high. It would have been easy to dwell on one aspect or another, so structuring the day so leaving us feeling positive was a pretty good result.

There were a couple of things that I would change, though. I think I would alter the balance of live to video sessions in favour of the live, to make most use of all the people gathered together. I think more space for discussion would work, as well – perhaps using an open-space or “unconference” method: just giving a bit more space for people to discuss the ideas raised in a more formal way than chatting over coffee or beer. (That said, chatting over beer afterwards I was told that a group of people sat out the final session, discussing what they had heard earlier; if I’d done that, I’d have missed three of my favourite bits from the afternoon – so I’m glad I didn’t!)

All in all, I thought TEDxTuttle worked very well. There were lots of interesting ideas, lots of interesting people and lots of interesting conversations – I guess this was the Tuttle influence coming through. I am sure many of these conversations will carry on at Tuttle, on people’s blogs, and on the wealth of other media we now have available.

And I guess that’s what it was all about! Thanks to Alan and the team who made it happen.

Feeling Insecure

I had an argument – maybe more of a one-sided discussion – with a poor guy in store card call centre today.

I was calling in response to a phone message I received about my late mother’s store card; she died last year and last month I finally paid off the balance on her account. The store had a justified query on the transaction and called me up, leaving a message on my mobile for me to call them.

When I did so, the guy on the phone asked me for the account holder’s address. The account holder being dead and not really having an address, I asked whose address it was they wanted – they had called me, after all.

He explained that it was the account holder’s. Of course, anyone could provide that address. Providing the first line of the address proves absolutely nothing. It certainly doesn’t prove who I am – and I was the person trying to do stuff on the account. For the call centre to try to verify the identity of a dead person made me wonder whether they had a lot of zombie assets. Or maybe they’re based in Bristol.

Either way – lousy security. The poor guy on the end of the phone didn’t really see what I was getting at.

This reminded me of another security issue I had during the week, this time using my credit card online. I forgot my password, which happens more or less every time I use my card on the internet – once or twice a month. So I clicked on the link that said “forgotten password?” once more. The system asked for my name, my date of birth and the security numbers on the back of the card. All of which would be available to anyone who had stolen my wallet.

So how does this make my credit card transactions secure?

I won’t stop using my card online, but I think a bit more attention paid to reasonable security wouldn’t go amiss.