Saturday, 2 August 2014

The Black Swan - the Impossibility of Invention

I've been reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb's 'The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable' which, unfortunately, doesn't include Natalie Portman getting down with Mila Kunis.  Never mind.

Like many work colleagues and former college friends it's garrulous and engaging and takes you places where you find you don't really want to be.  Intellectual places.  I haven't yet finished it - that'll come when we have another week under canvas and will then I'll post a review on  - but one area I've so far got to where the mechanism of deception comes up over the radar relates to inventions, and this speaks to the point I made about Mark Twain predicting the web.

Taleb says - seems to say, it's tricky paraphrasing an argument that you suspect is screwy - that it is logically impossible to predict the future because, if you have done so, then the future has arrived.

Take the wheel.  If a caveman had said to himself, I predict the invention of the wheel, then, by thinking about the wheel he'd invented it.

Well, on the face of it, yes.  But what Taleb doesn't seem to allow is the caveman saying, I predict that very soon somebody will invent a better way of moving these dressed granite stones across Salisbury Plain...  He can't seem to separate the what from the how. 

Sci-fi is packed with 'what' predictions, the usual dilithium hyper-star-drive that allows our characters to get on with it.  And we live in such a complex world the what is now far, far separated from the how.  Think of the wheel - the what is in the shape which is also the how.  Now think of the Space Shuttle, or indoor fireworks, or paint that goes on pink but dries white.

But, putting sci-fi aside, there are more practical predictions we can make (doesn't mean to say that we may get them all right) just by looking at the way the wind is blowing.  I predict that electric cars will get more prevalent,  that their batteries will get lighter, that they'll develop solar roof panels as standard, that they'll get more efficient and effective.  A virtuous circle.

I predict government data sources joining together meaning it'll be impossible to receive a tax refund if I've got an outstanding speeding fine.  (I suspect this has been standard practice in sensible places like Scandanavia and the Netherlands for decades).

I predict in-ear translation devices.  One day.

There.  Three swift 'what' predictions before 7am without any attempt at the 'how'.  Just by seeing how the world is changing, none of them that original.

Actually, it makes me realise that I don't even know how much of the present works, let alone the future.  Take our satnav which knows where there are traffic delays in real time.  Is somebody feeding this in?  Doubtful - never seen an advert for that callcentre.  Or, more probably, is it working off feedback from other satnav users?  In which case when I'm told my route has a thirty minute delay, is it just you having pulled over to splash your boots and tuck a sandwich away? 

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