Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Science of Prediction

Last year I was interviewed about the science of prediction on the Discovery Channel for a show called Nostradamus Decoded.  The show aired in November 2009 and is now available online.

My short segment starts at about 3:06 into the episode.

Interview on the Discovery Channel (3:06)

More about the science of prediction is in my book:

The Pursuit of Destiny: A History of Prediction

Technology, Privacy and Choice

I've been thinking much in recent years about the state of communications technology, as it has advanced so rapidly that I sometimes find it overwhelming. Years ago, Alvin Toffler, in the book Future Shock, imagined how societal changes could be so rapid that people would find it hard to keep up. As a scientist, who was always ahead of the game in terms of computers, I never imagined a time when technological change would just fly by.

In some ways recent changes in technology are miraculous and amazingly useful. Hear a few lyrics of a song, do a Google search, and find out the title. Within a few minutes, it can be purchased and downloaded. Amazing. Or it is remarkable to be able to find certain research articles electronically instead of having to make day-long ventures to libraries (although that was fun too).

However, modern communications technology brings many privacy concerns. I'm not sure how many people realize the growing ability of government agencies (or businesses if they were ever allowed access to such information) to track where people carrying phones or other electronic devices are at anytime, and to link together the electronic trails people leave whenever they use an ATM (automatic teller machine), supermarket discount cards, and so forth. Separately, that information seems pretty harmless. But it is truly scary to think of records that include a list of someone's eating habits, everywhere they like to take walks, and (thanks to Facebook) a list of many of their friends and relatives, with similar information about those people too. Now imagine an agency having a complete record of all this for everyone. What seemed inconceivable years ago, is well within technological abilities right now.

The other aspect of technology I've been ruminating about is choice. I think that no one should be forced to use any given technology. I know people, who for various reasons, don't own televisions, or never use the internet. I think that is fine -- it offers more time to read books. Personally, I treasure handwritten letters and notes. Some people nowadays don't have home phones but just use mobile phones, while others prefer only home phones and avoid the use of mobile phones. Those sound like reasonable choices to me. However, I do hear some people reacting in a state of veritable shock if some individual doesn't use a certain technology. I really think it should be up to individuals to decide how much technology feels comfortable for them.

Finally, communications technology can erode the boundary between home and work. Once again, that is fine for some, but it should be a matter of choice. People have the right to draw a line between the two, and enjoy unfettered relaxation or family time, unless their profession requires an immediate response to emergency situations, such as doctors on call.

A visionary writer who anticipated many of the issues of technology and privacy was Ray Bradbury. In "The Pedestrian" he imagined people being arrested for taking walks instead of driving, and in "The Murderer" he pictured a world where no one can escape the noise of people chatting constantly on wrist phones, and there is no privacy or quiet left to be seen.

Anyway, just some thoughts on technology. I would be interested in hearing reactions.