Friday, December 02, 2016

"This is inevitable, it is progress, but it is also socially destructive" - Stephen Hawking

Hawking at NASA, 1980s
On December 1, 2016, Stephen Hawking wrote in The Guardian: "The concerns underlying these votes about the economic consequences of globalisation and accelerating technological change are absolutely understandable. The automation of factories has already decimated jobs in traditional manufacturing, and the rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend this job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles remaining.
    This in turn will accelerate the already widening economic inequality around the world. The internet and the platforms that it makes possible allow very small groups of individuals to make enormous profits while employing very few people. This is inevitable, it is progress, but it is also socially destructive."

Hawking could have been discussing progress traps. He is on record as saying “Most of the threats we face come from the progress we’ve made in science and technology. We are not going to stop making progress, or reverse it, so we must recognize the dangers and control them."

Few other scientists have criticized science and technology in such uncertain terms, and one wonders why. Hawking has stature and knowledge on his side, and few would risk embarrassment by disagreeing with so fearless a contender with ALS, a disease that is usually fatal. But it is puzzling that he does not receive the resounding support of scientists and academics in general, in his questioning of progress.

Regarding the environment, Hawking writes in the Guardian article: "We face awesome environmental challenges: climate change, food production, overpopulation, the decimation of other species, epidemic disease, acidification of the oceans. Together, they are a reminder that we are at the most dangerous moment in the development of humanity. We now have the technology to destroy the planet on which we live, but have not yet developed the ability to escape it."

It has always been the belief of this writer that if we understand progress traps, we can solve them. Whether we call them 'unintended consequences', 'ideological pathology', 'collapse' or 'escalation of commitment', these inversions of progress have recurred throughout history. So much so that the progress /collapse syndrome can be studied rigorously, its causes identified, and remedies designed.

It takes a suspension of belief in the sanctity of science and technology to take them apart, however. Or great courage, as with Stephen Hawking.

Joseph A Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge University Press, 1988

Joseph A Tainter, Problem Solving: Complexity, History, Sustainability, Population and Environment: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, Volume 22, Number 1, September 2000

Jared Diamond, Collapse, Viking Penguin, New York, 2005. 

McGilchrist, Iain The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, USA: Yale University Press. 2009

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

New York's Mount Sinai hospital schooled by South Africa's Mamelani Projects

The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York is one of the largest and most advanced hospitals in the world. And yet, it is being tutored in patient care by Mamelani Projects, a community patient support system in Cape Town, South Africa.

The PBS video shown here explains the challenge of having community health workers reach patients where professionals are not available: "Mamelani’s health coaches say that, just as in New York City, those realities are often best confronted outside the walls of medical clinics by bringing health education to areas that need it most. The women who’ve attended these classes are making lasting changes to their own health and in the wider community."

In Cape Town, the "health coach" has been effective in reaching patients who need help in managing their health issues such as diabetes, blood pressure, medication problems and chronic conditions. For New York's Harlem, with the city's highest rate of diet related diseases, the Mameloni model has inspired Mount Sinai Heath Systems to find out if the African methods can be incorporated in to U.S. health practices.

At a time when some students at the University of Cape Town have called for science to be decolonized, with the moniker #ScienceMustFall, it may be useful for them to learn that the dedicated health coaches of the Mameloni Project are doing just that, constructively, in helping New York scientists learn from South Africa's most challenged communities.

The full transcript of the PBS feature can be seen at

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Something to celebrate, even in these dark times.

A scientific paradigm shift in the making: climate change - beyond a reasonable doubt.

On September 20, 2016, three hundred and seventy five members of the National Academy of Sciences, including 30 Nobel laureates, made history. They published  "An Open Letter Regarding Climate Change From Concerned Members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences".

Their main concern was that in "the Presidential primary campaign, claims were made that the Earth is not warming, or that warming is due to purely natural causes outside of human control." Or, as some climate-change skeptics would have it regarding excess CO2: They call it pollution, we call it Life.

What was historic was their agreement that absolute certainty is not a prerequisite for environmental policy: "Absolute certainty is unattainable. We are certain beyond a reasonable doubt, however, that the problem of human-caused climate change is real."

In science, certainty has long been a requirement. In brief terms, a scientific theory can be considered proven or disproven if the scientific method has been followed. The theory must be clearly stated, it must be supported by careful experiment or observation that provides precise data enabling a conclusion to be made with certainty. The conclusion will show proof that the theory is correct, or not. Moreover, the process must be capable of independent verification through a repeat of the steps, with results that confirm the conclusion.

This line of thinking has inspired modern society since the Scientific revolution in the 16th century, when the power of empirical and evidence-based data replaced the classical approach in which reason and argument would prevail. Objective data became the ideal, and subjectivity was to be avoided.

So powerful was the scientific approach that it became the foundation of policy and social practice generally, where the elements were quantifiable, technical and later industrial. Married to technology and industry, the whole of society became subject to the scientific paradigm and thus in danger of falling into a global progress trap. Even Stephen Hawking conceded in January 2016 that  “Most of the threats we face come from the progress we’ve made in science and technology." **

However in the legal field, the adversarial process remained standard, allowing each side in the argument to present their case. The conclusion would be a matter of judgement, by a jury, a judge, or sometimes a panel of experts. In criminal cases this judgement would be beyond a reasonable doubt.

Eventually it became obvious that the Achilles heel of Science was its insistence on absolute certainty. This can be seen in climate change policies, where skeptics and national leaders have been able to claim, successfully, that anthropogenic climate change had not been conclusively proven, and did not conform to "sound science". Countless products have been released into the global ecosystem unchecked because of the difficulty in proving with certainty that they are harmful. A few that were shown later to be harmful, after incalculable damage, were leaded gasoline, CFCs, PCBs and thalidomide. With the emphasis of 'absolute certainty', science inadvertently provided tools for stagnating true progress, especially in the gravely important areas of global warming and climate instability.

With the acceptance of the principle of "beyond a reasonable doubt" the wise members of the Union of Concerned Scientists and the National Academy of sciences, who wrote and signed the open letter, have provided a historic moment, perhaps even a scientific revolution*. The paradigm shift from obstinate objectivity to reasonable judgement is something to celebrate, even in these dark times.

Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed, The University of Chicago Press, Chicacgo, 1970
** Most threats come from progress in science and technology (article January 2016)

Note: previous articles in this collection have argued for the application of the principle of "beyond a reasonable doubt" in the context of climate change:

Monday, September 19, 2016

An uncomfortable truth about bigotry and the media

In a satirical article, the Onion has Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg saying contritely: "To those who were forced to read a headline they did not agree with when they visited Facebook yesterday, we are deeply sorry. It’s an inexcusable failing on our part if your viewpoints were not reinforced by what you saw onscreen. I want all Facebook users to know that you’ll never again encounter any ideas on our site that are in any way novel or ideologically challenging to you."

The satire was in response to Facebook's about-face on censoring the Napalm victim article, and Zuckerberg's actual claim that the company is a tech company, not a media or news company. The fact is that Facebook does tailor its newsfeeds and trending topics according to the individual client's disposition. It acts as editor, and shapes opinion.

But was the Onion article, however snide, a reflection of reality? The answer to that was provided, oddly enough, by Bill Clinton on the Daily Show with Trevor Noah. The former president, now 70, was Noah's guest a few days after the Facebook About-Face. In an eloquent reply to Noah's dismay at the ugliness of the campaign, Clinton noted “We’re getting siloed by the TV we watch and the web sites we scan...We’re less racist, less sexist, less homophobic and anti specific religions than we used to be. We have one remaining bigotry: we don’t want to be around anyone who disagrees with us.”

With that insight, Bill Clinton warned against the kind of technical progress that provides information while reinforcing intolerance.This is what the world is witnessing with the resurgence of crude bigotry in today's most connected, informed arenas.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Each of us is a living miracle

The use of weapons (excerpt from Escaping the Progress Trap, chapter 6)
The reason that these points are raised here is that we accept that humans kill humans, evil though it may be, and this is greatly exacerbated by the use of weapons. Unlike other primates, we no longer confront the victim on an equal footing at close range, and our ingenuity allows us to kill in large numbers. The victims may not be weaker individually or even competing for resources... In the proceedings of the 1968 International Symposium on Aggressive Behavior, B. L. Welch notes in his summation:17
Intraspecific aggressive behavior is common and probably occurs in all species of vertebrates, but actual physical contact between animals of the same species is relatively rare. It is normally prevented by species specific conventions which redirect aggressive energies and permit the resolution of differences without bloodshed. We need to gain a better understanding of ways to build such conventions into the social structure.

His overview of the summary is eloquent: "We are fellow travelers at the beginning of a journey into regions where some of the best-kept secrets of men and animals are hidden…Those who are interested in making human social conditions more stable and wholesome will be particularly interested in the ability of environmental and situational factors to encourage the expression of aggressiveness in creative and beneficial ways."

We cannot flee from modern, industrial life and go `back to nature' but we can bring nature back into our lives. The culture of excluding emotion, spirituality, sensuality and intuition from daily life is destructive. Moreover, the idea that humans are like animals and survive mainly by competing against each other, is correct only with regard to our animal origins. It is incorrect with respect to human societies, which do not normally exterminate or isolate those members who are superficially different. We are aware that each human being is exceptionally endowed with a variety of skills. If one is not a good hunter for example, he is not eliminated, but encouraged to use other valuable skills. We are all aware at some level that billions of years of evolutionary refinement lie behind the talents that we share. Whether God created us or we developed through an evolutionary process, the net result is the same: each of us is a living miracle. We find it abhorrent that a group can be targeted for elimination on account of religion, skin color, disability, language or any other quality. Yet societies will do just that, very systematically.18

In truth, humans can tolerate anomalies and promote individual creativity, being fully aware that people are too highly talented to be cast aside on account of differences. It is essential to restore a sense of humane vitality to our daily lives, ensuring that the fruits of ingenuity are used constructively. If scarcity, weaponry and competitive elimination allow us to drift towards widespread elimination, a new species will surely emerge: one that will not be humane. Given our tendency to kill fellow-humans, and great skill in armaments, it is vital that the differences between technical progress and human culture be resolved.

17. B.L. Welch, ed., Proceedings of International Symposium on Aggressive Behavior, Wiley Interscience Div., New York, 1969, p. 369.
18. Wright. R.  A Short History of Progress, by , Anansi Press, Toronto, 2004, p. 121.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

On Earth Day, let's all pat ourselves on the buck.

Unicorns aren't real, everybody knows that.  However, there are 146 private companies listed at the Wall Street Journal as being valued at more than 1 billion dollars each. At the top of the list is Uber, valued at $51 billion and at the bottom is a cluster of companies each valued at a mere 1 billion. That 1 billion mark is symbolised by the unicorn. Altogether the companies are valued at $537 billion.

It reminds me of 2008 all over again, when everyone knew mortgage backed securities were real and as safe as houses, until they weren't. Uber, the alpha unicorn, is still courting investors, even though it is valued at $51 billion. Obviously it's more about using investments to leverage new investors and less about running a healthy business. Sort of like a Ponzi scheme.

But what's troubling me is the nature of their game. Or perhaps the lack of nature. The business categories of these unicorns are:

  • Hardware, 6 companies, 
  • Consumer internet, 34, 
  • Software, 41, 
  • Aerospace and Defense, 1, 
  • E-Commerce 27, 
  • Healthcare, 11, 
  • Real estate, 1, 
  • Financial Services, 16, 
  • Entertainment and Games, 2, 
  • Energy, 1, 
  • Education and Media, 3. 

There is no Environment category.

Only one of the 146 unicorns could be described as having a 'green' objective. It's Bloom Energy Inc. The WSJ describes them thus:
"Bloom makes large stationary power devices that take natural gas as input and convert it into electricity without burning... In 2010, Mr. Sridhar appeared on '60 Minutes' and said he expected a Bloom box in every home in five to 10 years, but Bloom Energy is nowhere near that goal. The company has also raised far more capital -- at least $1.2 billion -- than the $100 million that Mr. Sridhar originally expected would be required."

Lesotho                            photo by Tom Philpott
The vast majority of the other unicorns are software/internet/e-commerce based. Why do investors like that? Because they need minimal human resources and infrastructure to scale up and go global. Consequently they are able to offer investors a much larger return than the stock market. Institutional investors such as city pension fund managers probably flock to companies like Uber. Maybe that's why city administrations all over the world are in a rush to enable such services. No-one even has to bribe them. Bernie Madoff must be having a good chuckle.

With all the green funds available from investors looking for a big return since COP21, we should be delighted. However 'green' might not mean the same thing to everyone, and some might not even see survival as a 'big return'.

Disclosure: I am the developer of a portable device that combines wind and solar electrical energy and stores it in rechargeable batteries. Project information can be seen at and yes, funding is being sought.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Alternative energy innovation, investment and the Valley of Death

With the Paris Conference COP21 behind us, one welcomes the flowering of new funding, financing and investment opportunities aimed at developers of solutions for problems wrought by climate change.

According to Reuters (11 Mar 2016) :
The Green Climate Fund (GCF), set up by the U.N. climate change negotiations, has so far allocated just $168 million to eight projects, in a decision made before December's Paris climate summit.
    Another 22 proposals for private and public-sector projects are now in the fund's pipeline. They will ask for $1.5 billion from the fund, to back activities worth more than $5 billion.
They include efforts to improve energy efficiency, strengthen disaster risk management and boost agricultural resilience in Latin America, Africa and Asia-Pacific, as well as to help small island developing states adapt to climate change.
The new Green initiatives include the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, among whose members are Bill Gates, Ratan Tata, George Soros, Jack Ma, Mark Zuckerberg and many more. Their opening statement makes a telling point:
Experience indicates that even the most promising ideas face daunting commercialization challenges and a nearly impassable Valley of Death between promising concept and viable product, which neither government funding nor conventional private investment can bridge... These investors will certainly be motivated partly by the possibility of making big returns over the long-term, but also by the criticality of an energy transition. Success will provide the economic proof points necessary for the mainstream market-driven clean energy economy required for our planetary future.
However, the likelihood of large investment funds actually reaching small innovators seems low. While those who have money to invest do acknowledge the 'valley of death', they still set the rules, and the participants in Bill Gates' Breakthrough Energy Coalition are not exactly folks who have made careers of risking everything to save the planet. For all their talk of risk, the very statement "Success will provide the economic proof points necessary for the mainstream market-driven clean energy economy required for our planetary future" makes it clear that they expect proof of no risk before making investments in innovation. And that their prime objective is making money, not saving the environment.

I hope I am wrong.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am the developer of a portable device that combines wind and solar electrical energy and stores it in rechargeable batteries. Project information can be seen at  .

Daniel B. O'Leary   April 2016

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Chimps and religion?

Excerpt from Escaping the Progress Trap:

As we step through evolutionary development we can go much farther back on the timeline than Gilgamesh, to see how homo sapiens may have coped with disorientation brought on by new phenomena. One notices a trend in the growth of rituals that became accepted as religion. In Lost Gods1 John Allegro notes Jane Goodall's description of the chimpanzees' dance of defiant affirmation on the outbreak of a thunderstorm, as an indication of early religious ritual. He quotes it in detail:
..the storm broke. The rain was torrential and the sudden clap of thunder, right overhead, made me jump. As if this were a signal, one of the big males stood upright and as he swayed and swaggered rhythmically from foot to foot I could just hear the rising crescendo of his pant-hoots above the beating of the rain. Then he charged off...two other males charged after him. One broke off a low branch from a tree as he ran and brandished it in the air before hurling it ahead of him...With a display of strength and vigor such as this, primitive man himself might have challenged the elements. 2
    (In the Shadow of Man, p. 52.)
In human history the anger of the gods would customarily be appeased by sacrificial rituals whose dual purpose was to relieve tension and solve the problem at hand, whether it was a stubborn disease or a dry spell. These evolved into the theatre of tragedy and comic relief, the simulated sacrifice in Christian churches, and later into psychiatry, counselling, and therapy. Cinema and television have taken over much of the earlier role of live theatre. The purpose of catharsis is to not only relieve tension (or purge the emotions, in Aristotle's definition) but to enable the nervous system's re-engagement of mind and senses, after which we act with a fresh outlook. We get a new perspective on life. Most of us have experienced the emotional readjustment that follows a harrowing experience. Real life drama and the enacted simulation can both have this effect. Closure is the term often used today, and reaching it requires the assistance of a professional therapist.3
  1. John Allegro, Lost Gods, Joseph, London, 1977
  2. Jane Goodall, In the Shadow of Man, Houghton Mifflin, Boston,1971, p. 52.
  3. Daniel O'Leary, Escaping the progress trap, Geozone, Montreal, 2007, p29 

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Most threats come from progress in science and technology ̶ Stephen Hawking

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, 
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. 
 - Shakespeare, Hamlet (1.5.167-8), 

The renowned physicist recently discussed his BBC* Reith Lecture1 on black holes.2 It emerged that in response to a question submitted by a schoolboy on whether the world is likely to end on account of humans, or through natural disaster, Hawking pointed to humans, their science and technology as potential culprits. According to The Telegraph's Science News3, Hawking responded  “Most of the threats we face come from the progress we’ve made in science and technology. We are not going to stop making progress, or reverse it, so we must recognize the dangers and control them. I’m an optimist, and I believe we can.”

Hawking specifically mentioned nuclear war, global warming and genetically engineered viruses as examples of human-made threats. Colonizing planets is seen as a means of surviving, a point that Hawking also made in the 2011 documentary Surviving Progress4, saying this was our only chance. But now he explicitly identifies science and technology as responsible. There's your progress trap.

In saying that we won't stop progress, or reverse it, Hawking is perhaps inadvertently revealing why science and technology may be our Achilles heel. History abounds with institutions that refused reform, and criticism. Athens prior to the Peloponnesian War, the pre-Reformation Church and the Soviet empire, to name but a few. Critics were seen as heretics and worse. These days, Science and Technology present themselves in many ways as beyond reproach. Thus Hawking's admission of their inherent dangers is a landmark event, for which he deserves the highest praise.

To consider the learning process – that gave us Stephen Hawking – as something not applicable to the problem of progress traps just makes no sense.

Evolution has enabled us not only to learn how to become a very capable survivor in our world, but to create new instruments and modify our world as well as our behaviour. This process suggests there are "more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of " in our science, and we should learn this lesson as soon as possible. Mars can wait.5

How do we have the brain power to do that? With 80 to 100 billion neurons in any given person's brain,6 and each neuron capable of making and receiving up to 10,000 connections, do the math.

by Daniel O'Leary FRSA - 23 Jan. 2016

  2. Telegraph Jan.2016.
  5. Goodman G, Gershwin ME, Bercovich D.   Mars can wait, facing the challenges of our civilization. Isr Med Assoc J. 2014 Dec;16(12):744-7.
    Amitai Etzioni Mars can wait, Oceans can't.  CNN  Aug.17, 2012
* The Reith Lecture with Prof. Hawking - broadcast in 2 parts on BBC Radio 4 on January 26, 2016, and on Feb. 2, 2016 both at 9 a.m.