Meat and Cancer: Is Meat Going to Disappear from our Diet?

Two days ago, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization (WHO) released a statement that’s probably still causing the meat industry leaders to quiver in their star-studded boots. The agency has convened together a working group of 22 experts, who reviewed more than 800 studies on the association between cancer and red and processed meat. The final results were phrased unequivocally: eating just 50 grams of processed meat every day makes one 18% more likely to develop colorectal (bowel) cancer.

The obvious question that rises now deals with the future of meat eating. Are we about to see the demise of hamburger joints? Is McDonald’s about to go down in flames, along with its beef patties?

Probably not, at least in the short term, for a few reasons.

Reasons for Meat to Stay

I divide the reasons that meat will remain in culture into two different categories, each coming from a different audience: the reactions in the public, and the innovations coming from start-ups.

The Public

Will the public forego meat? That is one possible outcome, but it seems extremely radical in the short term. Even now, articles in journals and magazines bring sense and nuances into the WHO’s declaration: they explain that while an 18% increased chance to develop cancer sounds frightening, the actual numbers are much more nuanced. When Cancer Research UK crunched the numbers, it found out that –

“…out of every 1000 people in the UK, about 61 will develop bowel cancer at some point in their lives. Those who eat the lowest amount of processed meat are likely to have a lower lifetime risk than the rest of the population (about 56 cases per 1000 low meat-eaters).”

Now, that sounds much less scary, doesn’t it?

The articles also explain the rationale behind the WHO’s five categories of potential cancer-inducing agents and chemicals. In Group 1 you can find the agents that the experts are certain of their potential to cause cancer, but there is no distinction between the different levels of harm caused by each substance! That means that tobacco and processed meat exist side by side in Group 1, even though smoking kills more than one million people every year, whereas processed meat kills ‘only’ 34,000 people every year. And guess what? People are still smoking, with 17.8% of all U.S. adults smoking cigarettes!

And that leads us to another matter: people are willing to do things that are harmful to them in the long run. We go out to the sun, even though the sun’s radiation is also in the Group 1. Women take contraceptives to make sure they do not get pregnant – despite the known increased risk of cancer. And of course, 51.9% of all Americans aged 12 or older consume alcohol, even though the ethanol in the drink has also been shown to cause cancer. So you’ll pardon me if I don’t stop investing in meat production anytime soon (figuratively, since I don’t invest in the stock market; I’m a wary futurist).

All of the above does not mean that we won’t let go of meat eventually, in the long term. But at least in the short term, much more needs to happen in order to make people radically change their dietary habits. Culture, as you may remember from a previous post about pace-layer analysis, is very slow indeed to change.

The New Meat Start-Ups

Whenever human beings run into a wall that stands in the way of their desires, they either break it down or find ways to go around it. The most obvious solution in this case would be to develop new kinds of cooking and preservation methods for meat that do not involve the dangerous chemicals highlighted by the WHO. We can expect to see hamburger joints coming up with hamburgers made from unprocessed meat, possibly with an emphasis on freshness. And since it seems that barbecuing the meat can also cause cancer, other types of dishes like goulash might gain popularity in place of steaks.

While I don’t know what innovations will come up in the meat industry, I feel confident that they will arrive. Where there is great need, there is also great money – and innovators go where the money is.

Conclusion

Even in the face of the WHO’s declaration, there doesn’t seem to be much of a chance that people will stop eating meat anytime soon. Note the emphasis on “soon”. It is entirely possible that a movement will rise out of this declaration, and urge people to let go of meat altogether. Such a movement will probably base itself on panic-mongering, distorting the evidence to lead people to the belief that all meat is bad for them. But even this kind of a movement will take time to develop and gather political and social power, which means the meat industry probably still has at least one generation’s lifetime – twenty years – to survive. Whether you like this assessment or not depends on your previous beliefs.

I would like to draw attention to one last issue at steak (pardon the pun). The WHO’s committee reported that – “The most influential evidence came from large prospective cohort studies conducted over the past 20 years.” This innocent comment reveals once again the importance of conducting research and collecting data long into the future. Most research today only lasts as long as it takes the student obtain his or her graduate degree, which makes it very difficult to collect data over time.

This is a topic for another post, really, so for now I’ll just end by saying that there is a very real need to support and fund lengthier research. Research that lasts decades provides the best evidence about the impact of nutrition and lifestyle over our lives, and it should be encouraged in the scientific community.

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What Happens When You Go into a Dispute with Fiverr? Or: the Future of Justice Systems

Last week, Yam Mesicka from Israel ordered a cover photo for his web site from a Fiverr seller. He requested that the gig be done in 24 hours, asked for the PSD file, and added a few other extras for a final bill of $80. Yam then sat back and relaxed, knowing that in 24 hours he will receive what he has paid for.

Twenty four hours later, he was still waiting. Agitated and under time pressure, he considered cancelling his order, but found out he could only do that after 48 hours had passed. So he waited some more, and on the 47th hour, he received the finished product, which was extremely shoddy and amateurish in his view.

Yam told the seller he wanted a refund. The seller did not consent. Yam turned to Fiverr for help, and after four days was told that he should ask the seller to cancel the deal. He explained to the representative that he tried to reason with the seller to no avail, at which point she patiently encouraged him to continue negotiating.

That was the point when Yam broke down and realized the salvation was not going to come from Fiverr’s management. Instead, he turned to the PayPal account from which he was supposed to pay the bill, and opened a dispute with Fiverr, explaining that they did not give him the return for his money. A short time later, he received a mail from Fiverr telling him that his Fiverr account was now blocked, and asking him to cancel the dispute. In other words, Fiverr was essentially trying to force Yam’s hand in a dispute he had against a single seller, which Fiverr’s representative allegedly refused to solve herself.

Yam’s story is still developing, and Fiverr has not replied to my request that they comment on it. But there is at least one lesson we can learn from it, about the future of justice systems in the world and how citizens turn from governmental justice systems – i.e. courts – to commercial ones owned and operated by big companies.

Justice Systems

In modern society, the government is the main source of justice, with appointed judges supplying justice to all who come before them. The only problem is that the system isn’t really working for most cases of civil disputes. The justice system has turned into a complex monstrosity of rules, laws, rulings and lawyers who can navigate the system for exorbitant fees. Rebecca Lova Kourlis, a former justice of the Colorado Supreme Court, describes the situation best in her own words in The Atlantic –

 “…let’s say your teenage daughter gets into a car crash with an uninsured motorist. She is badly injured and has to have shoulder surgery that eliminates her ability to get that tennis scholarship to college — and now you must pay for the car, the medical bills, and college. You need to sue the uninsured driver. It’s likely, however, that the costs of the litigation will exceed your losses — and even more likely that it will take years to resolve the case. Too often today, the last place to go for actual justice is civil court.

The problem is doubly obvious in Yam’s case, and generally for every commercial company that sells its services to millions of customers at the same time, like Amazon, eBay, Fiverr and others. The courts simply cannot provide an answer to the millions of citizens who want to get a relatively small refund, or some other compensation for unsatisfactory services. And so, the large companies have opened dispute resolution centers of their own, and those are taking care of millions of disputes every year.

But what happens when a customer is unhappy with a certain dispute’s resolution?

This, in essence, is Yam’s case. Being unsatisfied with the way the dispute was being handled by Fiverr, he turned to PayPal’s dispute resolution system. In other words, he tried to switch from one commercial justice system to a competing one.

Is it really so surprising that Fiverr refused to acknowledge the authority of PayPal’s dispute resolution system? Of course not. Let’s be honest: companies want to keep their customers’ disputes to themselves, and it’s perfectly understandable why Fiverr won’t accept PayPal’s dispute resolution process. All the same, since PayPal controls the money transfer, Yam may even get his money back from Fiverr.

And all throughout this story, the governmental justice system is nowhere to be found.

This is a sign of the things to come. As I mentioned before, the current governmental justice system is quite simply incapable of taking care of most of citizens’ civil disputes. In its place come the commercial justice systems, whose rules are not necessarily dictated by governments, morals or ethics. In fact, there is nearly no real supervision by governments on commercial justice systems.

You may side with the seller in Yam’s story, or with Fiverr, or even with Yam himself. The side you choose to take are beside the point. The real story here is that the execution of justice is rapidly being relegated to commercial companies, each of which with its own unsupervised justice system. And some of which – like Fiverr – are apparently willing to ban you from their services if you turn to justice systems other than its own.

Does that scare you yet? If not, just consider what happens if Google decides to ban you from using your Gmail mailbox just because you opened a dispute with it. A relatively small number of incredibly large companies are controlling our virtual platforms. They are gaining power rapidly while the government loses power, and people like Yam are caught in between. And there’s no dispute about that.

Fiverr is Broken by Design – and it Hurts Everyone

A few days ago I decided that I wanted a new business card for the up and coming new year. I headed straight to Fiverr, and browsed through some of the graphic designers who offered their services for five dollars or more. After a few minutes, my choice was made: I decided to use the designer with more than a hundred of 5-star positive ratings, and literally no negative reviews at all.

Of course, the gig didn’t really cost five dollars. I added $10 to receive the source file as well, $5 for the design of a double-sided business card, and $5 for a “more professional work”, as the designer put it. Along with other bits, the gig cost $30 altogether, which is still a good price to pay for a well-designed card.

Then the troubles began.

I received the design in 24 hours. It was, simply put, nowhere near what I expected. The fonts were all wrong, the colors were messed up, and worst of all – the key graphical element in front of the card was not centralized properly, which indicates to me a lack of attention to details that is outright unprofessional. So I asked for a modification, which was implemented within a day. It was not much better than the original. At which point I thanked the designer, and concluded the gig with a review of her work. I gave her a rating of generally three stars – possibly more than I felt that her skills warrant, and wrote a review applauding her effort to fix things, but also mentioned that I was not satisfied with the final result.

An hour later, the designer sent me a special plea. She asked me, practically in virtual tears, to remove my review, telling me that we can cancel the order and go to our separate ways. She told me that her livelihood depends on Fiverr, and without high ratings, she would not be approached by other buyers in the future.

A discussion I had with a Fiverr service provider, who begged me to give her a higher rating
A discussion I had with a Fiverr service provider, who begged me to give her a higher rating

I knew that my money would not actually be returned to me, since Fiverr only deposits the return in your Fiverr account for the next gigs you will purchase from them.But seeing a maiden so distraught, and me having an admittedly soft heart, I decided to play the gallant knight and deleted my negative review.

And so, I betrayed the community, and added to the myth of Fiverr.

Lessons for the No-Managers Workplace

In December 2011, the management guru Gary Hamel published an intriguing piece in the Harvard Business Review called “First, Let’s Fire All the Managers”. In the article, Hamel described a wildly successful company – The Morning Star Company – based on a model that makes managers unnecessary. The workers regulate themselves, criticize each other’s work, and deliberate together on the course of action their department should take. Simply put, everyone is a manager in Morning Star, and no one is.

You should read the article if this interests you (and it should), but just to sum up – Morning Star has some 400 workers, so it’s not a small start-up, and the model it’s using could definitely be scaled-up for much larger companies. However, Hamel included a few admonishments, the first of which was the need for accountability: the employees in Morning Star must “deliver a strong message to colleagues who don’t meet expectations,” wrote Hamel. Otherwise, “self-management can become a conspiracy of mediocrity.”

The Morning Star company - a workplace without managers. Source: The Los Banos Tomato Festival
The Morning Star company – a workplace without managers.
Source: The Los Banos Tomato Festival

The employees in Morning Star receive special training to make sure they understand how important it is that they provide criticism and feedback to other employees, and that they actually hurt all the other employees if such feedback is not provided and made public. Apparently the training works, since Morning Star has been steadily growing over the past few decades, while leaving its competitors far behind. In fact, today “Morning Star is the world’s largest tomato processor, handling between 25% and 30% of the tomatoes processed each year in the United States.”

Morning Star is a shining example for a no-managers workplace which actually works in a competitive market, since each person in the firm makes sure that others are doing their jobs properly.

But what happens in Fiverr?

Is Fiverr Broken?

I have no idea how many service providers on Fiverr beg their customers for high ratings. I have a feeling that it happens much more frequently than it should, and that soft-hearted customers like me (and probably you too) can become at least somewhat swayed by such passionate requests. The result is that some service providers on Fiverr will enjoy a much higher rating than they deserve – which will in effect deceive all their future potential customers.

Fiverr could easily take care of this issue, by banning such requests for high rating, and setting an algorithm that screens all the messages between the client and the service provider to identify such requests. But why should Fiverr do that? Fiverr profits from having the seemingly best designers on the web, with an average of a five stars rating! Moreover, even in cases where the customer is extremely ticked off, all that will happen is that the service provider won’t get paid. Fiverr keeps the actual money, and only provides recompensation by virtual currency that stays in the Fiverr system. This is a system, in short, in which nobody is happy, except for Fiverr: the customer loses money and time, and the service provider loses money occasionally and gets no incentive or real feedback that will make him or her improve in the long run.

Conclusion

As I wrote earlier, Fiverr could easily handle this issue. Since they do not, I rather suspect they like the way things work right now. However, I believe that sooner or later they will find out that they have garnered themselves a bad reputation, which will keep future customers away from their site. We know that great start-ups that have received a large amount of funding and hype, like Quirky, have toppled before because of inherent problems in their structures. I hope Fiverr would not fail in a similar fashion, simply because it doesn’t bother to winnow the bad apples from its orchard.

Pace Layer Thinking and the Lucky Iron Fish

When Achariya, an ordinary woman from Cambodia got pregnant, she was scared out of her wits. Pregnancy can become a death sentence for women in developing countries, with every year more than half a million mothers dying during pregnancy or child birth. In Cambodia specifically, “maternity-related complications are one of the leading causes of death among women ages 15 to 49”, according to the Population Reference Bureau. Out of every 100,000 women delivering a baby, 265 Cambodian mothers do not make it out of the birth room alive. In comparison, in developed countries like Italy, Australia and Israel, only 4–6 mothers out of 100,000 perish during childbirth.

While there are many different reasons for the abundance in maternal mortality, a prominent one is chronic conditions like anemia caused by iron deficiency in food. Dietary iron deficiency affects about 60% of pregnant Cambodian women, and results in premature labor, and hemorrhages during childbirth.

There is good evidence that iron can leech out of cast-iron cookware, such tools can be too expensive for the average Cambodian family. But in 2008 Christopher Charles, a student from the University of Guelph had a great idea: he and his team distributed iron discs to women in a Cambodian village, asking them to add it to the pot when making soup or boiling water for rice. The iron was supposed to leech from the ingot and into the food in theory. In practice, the women took the iron nuggets, and immediately used them as doorstops, which did not prove as beneficial to their health.

Charles did not let that failure deter him. He realized he needed to find a way to make the women use the iron ingot, and after a conversation with the village elders a solution was found. He recast the iron in the form of a smiling fish – a good luck charm in Cambodian culture. The newly-shaped fish enjoyed newfound success as women in the village began putting it in their dishes, and anemia rate in the village decreased by 43% within 12 months. Today, Charles and his company are upscaling operations, and during 2014 alone have supplied more than 11,000 iron fish to families in Cambodia.

The Lucky Iron Fish in a gift package.  Source: Wikipedia, by Dflock
The Lucky Iron Fish in a gift package.
Source: Wikipedia, by Dflock

Pace Layer Thinking

For me, the main lesson from the iron fish experiment is that new technology cannot be measured and analyzed without considering the way in which society and current culture will accept it. While this principle sounds obvious, many entrepreneurs overlook it, and find themselves struggling against societal forces out of their control, instead of adapting their inventions so that they be easily accepted by society.

We have here, in essence, a very clear demonstration of the Pace Layering model developed and published by Stewart Brand back in 1999. Brand distinguishes between six different layers which describe society, each of which develops and changes at a pace of its own. Those layers are, in order from the ones that change most rapidly, to the ones that are nearly immovable:

  • Fashion
  • Commerce
  • Infrastructure
  • Governance
  • Culture
  • Nature
Pace Layer Thinking model. Source: The Clock of the Long Now
Pace Layer Thinking model.
Source: The Clock of the Long Now

The upper layers are moving forward more rapidly than the lower ones. They are the Uber and Airbnb (commerce layer) that stand in conflict with the Government’s regulations (governance layer). They are the ear extenders (fashion layer) that stand in conflict with the unwritten prohibition to significantly alter one’s body in Western civilization (culture layer). And sometimes they are even revolutionary governmental models used to control the population, as did the communist regimes in USSR which conflict with the very biological nature of the human beings put in control over such countries (governance layer vs. nature layer).

As you can see in the following slide (originally from Brand’s lecture at The Interval), the upper layers are not only the faster ones, but they are discontinuous – meaning that they evolve rapidly and jump forward all the time. Unsurprisingly, these layers are where innovations and revolutions occur, and as a result – they get all the attention.

The lower layers are the continuous ones. Consider culture, for example. It is impressively (and frustratingly) difficult to bring changes into a cultural item like religion. It takes decades – and sometimes thousands of years – to make lasting changes in religion. Once such changes occur, however, they can remain present for similar vast periods of time. And some would say that religion and Culture are blindingly fast when compared to the Nature layer, which is almost impossible to change in the lifetime of the individual.

You can easily argue that the Pace Layer Model is flawed, or missing some parts. Evolutionary psychologists, for example, believe that our psychology is a result of our genetics – and thus would probably put some aspects of Culture, Commerce, Governance and even Fashion at the Nature level. Synthetic biologists would say that today we can play with Nature as we wish, and as a result the Nature level should be jumpstarted to an upper level. It could even be said that companies like Uber (Commerce level) are turning out to have more power than governments (Governance level). Regardless, the model provides us with a good standing point to start with, when we try to think of the present and the future.

What does the Pace Layer Model have to do with the smiling luck fish? Everything and nothing. While I don’t know whether Charles has known of the model, a similar solution could’ve been reached by considering the problem in a Pace Layer thinking style. Charles’ problem, in essence, revolved around creating a new Fashion. He had a hard time doing that without resorting to a lower level – the Culture level – and reshaping his idea in ways that would fit the existing culture.

Pace Thinking about the Israel-Palestine Conflict

We can use Pace Layer thinking to consider other problems and challenges in modern times. It’s particularly interesting for me to analyze about the Israel-Palestine ongoing conflict, from a layer-based point of view.

There is currently a wave of terrorist attacks in Israel, enacted by both Palestinians and Israeli-Arabs from East Jerusalem. I would put this present outbreak at the Fashion level: it’s happening rapidly, it’s contagious (more terrorists are making attempts every day), and it’s drawing all of our attention to it. In short, it’s a crisis which we should ignore when trying to get a better long-term view of the overall problem.

What are the other layers we could work with, in regards to the conflict? There is the Commerce layer, representing the trade happening between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. If we want to lessen the frequency of crises like the current one, we should probably find ways to increase trade between the two parties. We could also consider the Infrastructure and Governance layers, thinking about shared cities, buildings or other infrastructures.

Last but not least – and probably most importantly – we need to consider the Culture layer. There is no denying that some aspects of the conflict revolve around the religions and other cultural habituations of each side. When a young Israeli-Arab gets up from bed in the morning, feels repressed and decides to murder a Jewish citizen, we need to ask ourselves why the culture around him hadn’t encouraged him to turn to other means of expressing his anger, like writing a column in the paper, or getting into politics. So the culture must change – and we need to find ways to bring forth such a change.

Obviously, these preliminary ideas and thoughts are merely starting points for a deeper analysis of the problem, but they serve to highlight the fact that every problem and every conflict can be analyzed in several different layers, none of which should be ignored, and that the best solutions should take into consideration several different layers.

Conclusion

The Pace Layer model of thinking can be a powerful tool in the analysis of every challenge, and could be used in many different cases. We’ll probably use it in the future in other articles on this blog, to analyze different situations and crises and examine the deeper layers that exist under the most fashionable and rapid ones.

In the meantime, I dare you to use the Pace Layer model to consider problems of your own – whether they’re of the national kind or entrepreneurial in nature – and report in the comments section what you’ve found out.

Failures in Foresight: The Failure of Nerve

Picture from Wikipedia, uploaded by the user Yerevanci

Today I would like to talk (write?) about the first of several different failures in foresight. This first failure – called the Failure of Nerve – had been identified in 1962 by noted futurist and science fiction titan Sir Arthur C. Clarke. While Clarke has mostly pinpointed this failure as a preface for his book about the future, I’ve identified several forces leading to the Failure of Nerve, and discuss ways to circumvent it, in the hope that the astute reader will avoid making similar failures when thinking about the future.

Failure of Nerve

The Failure of Nerve is one of the most frequent of failures when talking or writing about the future, at least in my personal experience. When experts or even laypeople are expressing an opinion about the future, you expect them to be knowledgeable enough to be aware of the facts and the data from the present. And yet, all too often, this expectation is smashed on the hard-rock of mankind’s arrogance. The Failure of Nerve occurs when people are too fearful of looking for answers in the data that surrounds them, and instead focus on repeating their preconceived notions – which might’ve been true in the past, but are no longer relevant in the present.

Examples for Failures of Nerve are sadly abundant. Many quote Simon Newcomb, the famous American astronomer, who declared that flying machines are essentially impossible, a mere two years before the first flight of the Wright brothers –

“The demonstration that no possible combination of known substances, known forms of machinery and known forms of force, can be united in a practical machine by which man shall fly long distances through the air, seems to the writer as complete as it is possible for the demonstration of any physical fact to be.”

However, this is not a Failure of Nerve, since in Newcomb’s time, the data from the scientific labs themselves was incorrect. As the Wright brothers wrote about their experiments –

“Having set out with absolute faith in the existing scientific data, we were driven to doubt one thing after another, till finally, after two years of experiment, we cast it all aside, and decided to rely entirely upon our own investigations.”

Newcomb’s Failure of Nerve appeared later on, when he was confronted with reports about the Wright brothers’ success. Instead of withholding judgement and checking the data again, Newcomb only conceded that flying machines may have a slight chance of existing, but they could certainly not carry any other human beings other than the pilot.

The first flight of the wright brothers - against the better judgement of the scientific experts of the time. Source: Wikipedia
The first flight of the wright brothers – against the better judgement of the scientific experts of the time.
Source: Wikipedia

A similar Failure of Nerve can be found in the words of Napoleon Bonaparte from the year 1800, uttered in reply to news regarding Robert Fulton’s steamboat –

“What, sir, would you make a ship sail against the wind and currents by lighting a bonfire under her deck? I pray you, excuse me, I have not the time to listen to such nonsense.”

Had the uprising emperor bothered to take a better look at the current state of steamboats, he would’ve learned that boats with “bonfires under their decks” were already carrying passengers in the United States, even though the venture was not a commercial success. Fulton went on to construct a steamboat (nicknamed “Fulton’s Folly”) that rose to fame, and in 1816 France finally recovered its senses and purchased a steamboat from Great Britain. Knowing of Napoleon’s genius in warfare, it is an interesting thought exercise to consider how history might have changed had the emperor realized the potential in steamboats when the technology was still emergent.

Is it possible that steamboats like this one would've changed the course of history, had Napoleon not been affected by the Failure of Nerve? Source: Wikipedia
Is it possible that steamboats like this one would’ve changed the course of history, had Napoleon not been affected by the Failure of Nerve?
Source: Wikipedia

How do we deal with a Failure of Nerve? To find the answer to that question, we need to understand the forces that make this failure so common.

Behind the Curtains of the Nerve

There are at least three different forces that can contribute to a Failure of Nerve. These are: selective exposure to information, confirmation bias, and last but definitely not least – the conservation of reputation.

The Force of Selective Exposure

Selective exposure to information is something we all suffer from. In this day and age, we have an abundance of information. In the past, news would’ve had taken weeks and months to get to us, and we only had the village elder’s opinion to interpret them for us. Today we’re flooded by information from multiple media sources, each of which with its own not-so-secret agenda. We’re also exposed to columns by social critics and other luminaries, and we can usually tell in advance how they look at things. If you read Tom Friedman’s column, you can be sure he’ll give you the leftist approach. If you open the TV at The Glenn Beck Program, on the other hand, you’ll get the right-winged view.

An abundance of information is all good and well, until you realize that human beings today suffer from a scarcity in attention. They can only focus on one article at a time, and as a result they must choose how to divide their time between competing pieces of information. The easiest choice? Obviously, to go with the news that support your current view on life. And that is indeed the way that many people choose – and understandably results in a Failure of Nerve. How can you be aware of any new information that stands in contradiction to your core beliefs, if you only listen to the people who repeat those same core beliefs?

Philip E. Tetlock, in his new book Superforcasting, tells about Doug Lorch, one of the top forecasters discovered in recent years, who has found a way to circumvent selective exposure, albeit at an effort. In the words of Tetlock (p. 126) –

“Doug knows that when people read for pleasure they naturally gravitate to the like-minded. So he created a database containing hundreds of information sources – from the New York Times to obscure blogs – that are tagged by their ideological orientation, subject matter, and geographical origin, then wrote a program that selects what he should read next using criteria that emphasize diversity. … Doug is not merely open-minded. He is actively open-minded.”

Of course, reading opposite views to the one you adhere to can be annoying and vexing, to say the least. And yet, there is no other way to form a more nuanced and solid view of the future.

Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction. By Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner
Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction. By Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner

The Force of Confirmation Bias

Sadly, even when a person chooses to actively open his or her mind to different views, it does not mean that they will be able to assimilate the lessons into their outlook. As human beings, one is wired to –

“…search for, interpret, prefer, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses while giving disproportionately less attention to information that contradicts it.” – Wikipedia

The confirmation bias is well-known to any expecting future-parent. You walk around in the city, and you find that the street is choke-full of parents with strollers and babies. They are everywhere. You can’t avoid them in the streets, on the bus, and even at work you find that your co-worker had decided to bring her children to the workplace today. So what happened? Has the world’s birth rate doubled itself all of a sudden?

The obvious answer is that we are constantly influenced by confirmation bias. If our mind is constantly thinking about babies, then we’ll pay more attention to any dripping toddler crossing the road, and the memory will be etched much more firmly into our minds.

The confirmation bias does not influence only young parents. It has some real importance in the way we view our world. A study from 2009 demonstrated that when people were asked to read certain articles spend 36 percent more time, on average, reading articles that they agreed with. Another study from 2009 demonstrated that when conservatives are watching The Colbert Report – in which Stephen Colbert satirizes the part of a right-winged news reporter – they read extra-meaning into his words. They claimed that Colbert only pretends to be joking, and actually means what he says on the show.

How does confirmation bias relate to the Failure of Nerve? In a way, it serves to negate some of the bad reputation that the Failure of Nerve has garnered from Clarke. The confirmation bias basically means that unless we make a truly tremendous and conscious attempt to analyze the world around us, our mind will fool us. We’ll pay less attention to evidence that refutes our current outlook, and consider it of lesser importance than other pieces of evidence. Or as the pioneer of the scientific method, Francis Bacon, put it (I found this great quote in a highly recommended blog: You Are Not So Smart) –

“The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it.”

Can we fight off the influence of the confirmation bias over our thinking process? We can do that partially, but never completely and it will never be easy. Warren Buffett (third on the list of Forbes’ richest people in the world, and one of the most successful investors in the world) uses two means to tackle the confirmation bias: he specifically looks for dissenters and invites them to speak up, and (assumedly) he’s writing down promptly any piece of evidence that stands in contradiction to his current ideas. In the words of Buffet himself (quoted in TheDataPoint) –

“Charles Darwin used to say that whenever he ran into something that contradicted a conclusion he cherished, he was obliged to write the new finding down within 30 minutes. Otherwise his mind would work to reject the discordant information, much as the body rejects transplants.”

In short, in order to minimize the impact of confirmation bias, you need to remain constantly vigilant against the tendency to be certain of yourself. You must chase after those who disagree with you and seek their opinions actively, and perhaps most importantly: you should write it all down in order to distance yourself from your original perspective, and allow yourself to judge your thinking as though it were someone else’.

The Conservation of Reputation

One of the best known laws in the physical world is the Conservation of Mass. Only slightly less well-known is the law of Conservation of Reputation, which states that the average expert always takes the best of care not to lose face or reputation in his or her dealings with the media. Upton Sinclair had summed up the this law nicely when he wrote –

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Sadly enough, most experts believe that revisions of past forecasts, or indeed any change of opinion at all, will diminish and tarnish their reputation. And so, we can meet experts who will deny reality even when they meet it face-to-face. Some of them are probably blinded by their own big ideas and egos. Others probably choose to conserve what’s left of their reputation and dignity at any cost, even as they see their forecasts shrivel and wither in the light of the present.

The story of Larry Kudlow is particularly prominent in this regard. Kudlow forecast that President George W. Bush’s substantial tax cuts will result in an economic boom. The forecast fell flat, and the economy did not progress as well as it did during President Clinton’s reign. Kudlow did not seem to notice, and declared that the “Bush Rush” is here already. In fact, in 2008 he proclaimed that the current progress of American economy “may be the greatest story never told”. Five months later, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, and the entire global financial system collapsed along with that of the U.S.

I am going to assume that Kudlow was truly sincere in his proclamations, but obviously many other experts will not feel the need to be as honest, and will adhere to their past proclamations and declarations come hell or high water. And if we’re totally honest, then it must be said that the public encourages such behavior. In January 2009, The Kudlow Report (starring none other than Kudlow himself) began airing on CNBS. Indeed, sticking to your guns even in the face of reality seems to be one of the most important lessons for experts who wish to come up with the upper hand in the present – and assume correctly that few if any would force them to come to terms with their forecasts from the past.

Conclusion

In this text, the first of several, I’ve covered the Failure of Nerve in foresight and forecasting. The Failure of Nerve was originally identified by Arthur C. Clarke, but I’ve tried to make use of our current understanding of behavioral psychology to add more depth and to identify ways for people to overcome this all-too-common failure. Another book which has been very helpful in this endeavor was the recently published Superforecasting by Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner, which you should definitely read if you’re interested in the art and science of forecasting.

There are obviously several other failures in foresight, which I will cover in future articles on the subject.

Why crowdfunding scams are good for society

Yesterday I suggested a scenario about the Skarp laser razor campaign, in which the new device disrupts the current shaving industry giants. Well, that was yesterday. Less than 24 hours after I published the piece in this blog, Kickstarter suspended (a polite word for “dumped”) the project. The people behind Skarp jumped ship immediately to Indiegogo, and seem to be doing quite well in there – gathering approximately $10,000 every hour, for the past ten hours.

There have been several accusations by so-called experts and professional experts in the field of lasers and physics, regarding the feasibility of the laser razor. And yet, the suspension by Kickstarter was formally because of a very different reason: it turns out the Skarp team did not have a working prototype. Or maybe they did, but it was working so haphazardly that it could not be used for actual shaving.

So what’s going on here? Don’t the folks at Kickstarter consult experts before they agree to take up projects that may be physically impossible?

I believe they do not, and that’s generally a good thing.

In order to understand why I say so, let’s first try to see what purpose Kickstarter and crowdfunding platforms as a whole serve in society.

The Three Steps of Innovation

We often hear of the entrepreneur who had an amazing idea. A truly breathtaking invention formed in his mind, and he immediately proceeded to make it a reality, earning himself a few billion dollars and a vacation in the Bahamas on the way.

That, at least, is the myth.

In reality, innovation is based on three distinct steps:

  • Recombination of existing concepts into many new ideas;
  • Finding out which ideas are good, and which aren’t;
  • Rapidly iterating a good idea until it becomes an excellent one.

The Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) is an example for a unique recombination of existing concepts that changed the world. The PCR device is used in nearly every biological lab as part of the work needed to sequence DNA, to create new DNA strands, and genetically engineer bacteria, plants and even human cells. The technique was invented by Kary Mullis, who won the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for it, ‘simply’ by recombining existing techniques and automating them to a degree.

Many other winning inventions are in fact a recombination of existing ideas. Facebook, for example, relies on the recombination of a social network, the World Wide Web, smartphones, image and video storing, hashtags, and many others. Similarly, autonomous (driverless) cars are a recombination of computers, sensors, image processing, GPS, etc.

Since we’re constantly innovating, dozens (and sometimes hundreds and thousands) of new ideas are being added to the mix every year, and entrepreneurs are trying to recombine them in different and exciting ways to create new inventions. This is the first step of innovation: the frantic recombination of existing ideas by inventors from around the world.

The only problem is, most of these new inventions are, well, rubbish.

In his book “How to Fly a Horse”, Kevin Ashton (the inventor who gave the Internet of Things its name) details what happens to newly patented inventions in at least one firm – Davison Design. For the past 23 years, Davison mainly took money from customers to register their patents. Overall, its revenues equaled $45 million a year, with an average of 11,000 people signing with the company. How many people actually made any money from their patents and inventions? Altogether, only 27 people have seen any money out of their patents. The statistics, in short, are grim for any inventor. You may think the market is eager to use your new idea, but you can never tell for certain until the product is actually on the market. In fact, Shinkhar Ghosh from Harvard Business School has discovered that, “About three-quarters of venture-backed firms in the U.S. don’t return investors’ capital”. So nobody knows which idea is going to be any good: not even the big venture capitalists who invest millions of dollars in those ideas.

This is where the second part of innovation comes in: we have to winnow the good ideas from the bad ones. In the past, this function was only performed by government grants and investors. Distinguished committees would go over hundreds and thousands of idea submissions, and select the ones that seemed to have the best chance for success. Unfortunately, such committees are hard-pressed to support all the applicants, and as a result, 98-99% of ideas are refused funding.

Consider, on the other hand, Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms. In Kickstarter alone, 43% of campaigns reach their goals and obtain the money they needed to make their vision a reality. In a way, crowdfunding allows inventors to test their ideas: does the public want this new invention? Is it any good? Are people willing to pay for it… even before the factories have received the million dollar contract to manufacture all the parts?

In that way, crowdfunding platforms enable innovation by streamlining the second step: distinguishing the good ideas from the bad ones. And once a good idea has been found and supported – whether it’s an ice chest with a USB charger, or a pillow that covers the user’s head completely – the inventor keeps upgrading and changing the product so that it becomes better with each iteration. This is the reason that iPhone 6S is so much better than the original iPhone.

Innovation is the steppingstone on which our modern day society is built. Innovation leads to increased productivity, and as Paul Krugman says – “Productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything.” Innovative new companies are responsible for the majority of new jobs in the United States, and innovative ‘crazy’ ideas – the kind only few dared to support when they were originally proposed, like Airbnb or Google – have led to wholesale changes in the way society behaves.

Today’s new Google or Airbnb would not have had to look for elite investors: they could’ve went to the crowdfunding platforms to ask for assistance, and their chances would’ve been much higher to receive funding, at least in principle.

That is why Kickstarter is so important for innovation and for modern society: it allows the public to support many more innovators than ever before. And while quite a few of them are going to fail (probably most of them), the ones who make the big breakthroughs are going to change society. At the very least, even the fluked campaigns show the rest of us the value of some ideas. Overall, crowdfunding platforms move society forward.

The Bad Apples

“That is all just swell,” you might say now, “but how can we be sure that the projects on Kickstarter are not a scam? How can we know for sure that the Skarp laser razor isn’t a scam? The experts were all against it!”

Well, here’s a newsflash: when it comes to innovation, you can’t always rely on the experts.

There are plenty of examples that support this statement. Both Lord Kelvin (noted British Physicist) and the great astronomer Simon Newcomb dismissed any attempt to build a heavier-than-air flying machine, a mere two years before the Wright brothers demonstrated the first successful airplane. The British Royal Astronomer Richard van der Reit Wooley has declared confidently that “Space travel is utter bilge” – one year before Sputnik orbited the Earth. In fact, experts are wrong so often about the limits of possibility, that Arthur C. Clarke has issued his First Law about them –

Arthur C. Clarke's First Law. Originally from IZQuotes
Arthur C. Clarke’s First Law. Originally from IZQuotes

In short, experts can be wrong, too, even in matters as rigid as the laws of nature and the ways we can manipulate them. And it is so much easier to get social developments and innovations wrong, since there is no perfect model of the human mind or of society. And thus, no expert would’ve forecast with certainty that people will upload their photos so that millions can see them (Facebook, Flickr, Instagram), or share their houses (Airbnb) and cars (Uber) with total strangers. And yet, these innovative start-ups made it into existence, and changed the world.

That does not mean, of course, that the public should support every wily promise on Kickstarter. In fact, I think Kickstarter did a good thing when they removed the Skarp project because the inventors had no fully working prototype. In the end, crowdfunding platforms need to balance between the desire to protect their users from scams, and the fact that it’s very difficult to distinguish between scams and some extremely innovative ideas. At least in this case, it seems Kickstarter decided to err on the side of caution.

Conclusion

While many are asking whether the Skarp laser razor is a scam, it’s the wrong question. The real question is what purpose Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms should have in our modern society, and the honest answer is probably that the users of these platforms have a better chance of seeing their money dissipating into thin air – but altogether that’s a good thing, since more innovators overall get supported – and the few who succeed, change the world.

So go ahead: support Skarp on Indiegogo, or any other crazy idea on Kickstarter, Tilt and the other crowdfunding platforms out there. Buy that new (barely functioning) 3D-printer, the shiniest (and fragile) aerial drone, or that dream-reader that doesn’t really work. Go ahead – now you have the justification for it: you’re promoting innovation in society. Or in other words – bring on the scams!

The Laser Blade that Could Tear Down Gillette and Schick

Shaving is one of the great hardships of my life (and I guess I should consider myself lucky that this is one of my top worries). Up until recent years there have only been two giants in the shaving market: Schick and Gillette. Both are engineering their razor blades with space-age technology, promising you a blade that looks and feels as if it were found floating in space, shining magnificently in the Sun’s bright rays.

And it stings. Oh, how it stings my skin.

Both companies are trying to minimize cuts to their customers’ skin, obviously, but getting the nicking frequency down to zero is a daunting task, and probably impossible. We’re dealing with blades here, after all, sharpened to the point where they could (allegedly) cut air molecules in twine. As the book of Proverbs admonishes us: “Can a man carry fire in his lap, without burning his clothes?”

I would think that the burning clothes would be of the least concern to the guy carrying fire in his lap (please don’t do that), but the point is clear. You play with fire, you get burned. You play with razors, you get cut.

Well, then, why don’t we change the paradigm of using a razor blade for shaving? That’s exactly the idea behind the Skarp Razor project, which has recently surged to new heights on everybody’s favorite crowdfunding platform: Kickstarter.

The basic idea is pretty simple. Instead of blades, the Skarp ‘razor’ is utilizing a small laser beam with a wavelength that was selected specifically to cut human hairs. It does not cut or burn the skin, needs no shaving foam, and only requires one AAA battery every month. Those, at least, are the promises on the campaign site.

The Skarp Laser Razor - a virtual demonstration, from the Kickstarter campaign site.
The Skarp Laser Razor – a virtual demonstration, from the Kickstarter campaign site.

The inventor behind the new blade, Morgan Gustavsson, has worked in the medical & cosmetic laser industry for three decades, and invented and patented the most common method for hair removal using laser in cosmetic beauty salons. Now he’s perfected and miniaturized the technology (again, according to the campaign’s claims which should be taken with a grain of salt) to bring it to everyone’s households.

If the Skarp Razor actually delivers on the promises made, the consequences would be used, and would essentially disrupt the stagnated shaving industry. Schick and Gillette have both competed under a very limited paradigm: shaving is to be done with blades only. Their entire business model revolves around the sale of high-priced blades. How can they handle a competitor that sells only one razor that should last for nearly a lifetime of shaving?

Short answer: they can’t, at least not under their current business model. Unless they find a new breakthrough technology of their own, their business model will be disrupted within a year, and they may well find themselves on the ropes in five years or less. This may be yet another Kodak Moment: a huge industry giant in its field, which gets disrupted following an innovation that reaches to the masses (digital cameras in smartphones), and declares bankruptcy five years later.

The possible disruption of this $4.13 billion market reveals an important principle of today’s industry, which has been mentioned before by Peter Diamandis, founder and chairman of the X-Prize foundation and co-founder of Singularity University: “If you don’t disrupt yourself, somebody else will.”

This principle is particularly relevant in the case of Schick and Gillette. The two giants have not faced any real competition except for each other for a long time now, and were thus unwilling to change their basic operating paradigms. They innovated, decorated and re-innovated their blades, but they did not find new ideas and concepts to re-think the process of shaving. Now, when the laser blade makes an appearance, they will need to frantically look for new answers for the threat.

Of course, nobody can forecast the future accurately, and the new laser shaving technology defies any attempt at foresight right now because we don’t know how it works exactly. Furthermore, the initial product that will be delivered to consumers next year is bound to be in a preliminary state: primitive and rough, and almost certainly disappointing for the wide public. The Skarp 2.0 will be infinitely better and more suitable for the needs and wishes of the consumers – but only if the company survives the first disappointment.

Conclusion

We can’t know yet whether the Skarp Razor is about to disrupt the shaving industry, especially since at the moment it’s no more than a promise on a crowdfunding site. However, if the invention does have merit and proves itself over the next year, the shaving industry giants will find themselves in a race against a new technology that they were not prepared for. I, for one, welcome such competition that will lower the prices of blades, and force the old guard to re-innovate and rethink their existing products and business models. I don’t envy the people at Gillette and Schick, though, for whom the next decade is going to be a hair-raising rollercoaster.

Virtual Reality Will Take Gaming Outside

Featured image by Phil Whitehouse on Flickr

One of the complaints I hear most often from concerned parents, is that their kids spend most of their time in the virtual world. Their eyes are constantly glued to their smartphone’s screen.

“How can those kids live like that?” They demand to know. “Are we raising a new generation of zombies, totally dependant on their screens?”

My answer, always, is to remind them just how recently ago smartphones appeared on the world stage. Until 2007, there were no smartphones for the public. That means that this innovation is basically eight years old – a ridiculously short period of time compared to the history of humanity, or even to disrupting innovations like trains or cars. We’re still figuring out how to use the smartphones, well, smartly, and how to engineer our gates into the virtual world. And I tell those concerned parents that in ten years time, their children won’t look into their smartphones to find the virtual world, but will find the virtual world coming to them instead, unbidden.

To understand what I’m talking about, you just need to take a look at one of the hottest scenes in technology today: the virtual and augmented realities (VR and AR). Devices like Oculus Rift, Vive and Samsung Gear VR are coming to the consumer market in this year and the next, and the experience they provide is like nothing we’ve seen before. Trust me on this one: I’ve tried both the Rift and the Gear VR, and found myself swimming in the ocean with whales, visiting Venice, and running from real-life monsters in a temple… without actually getting up from my chair.

A trailer sample of the new generation of VR headsets: the HTC Vive, created by HTC and Valve

The forecasts for the virtual reality are incredibly optimistic, with Business Insider estimating that shipments of VR headsets will double in number every year, and will create a $2.8 billion hardware market by 2020. The Kzero consulting firm has forecast that annual revenues for VR software will reach $4.6 billion by 2018. This growth rate leaves the iPhone’s far behind, and will mean that – if those forecasts are anywhere near accurate – VR is about to take the world by storm in the next three years.

A forecast by Business Insider for the near future of VR devices. Notice the 99% cumulative annual growth rate - which essentially means a doubling of the number of shipments every year.
A forecast by Business Insider for the near future of VR devices. Notice the 99% cumulative annual growth rate – which essentially means a doubling of the number of shipments every year.

For myself, I’m still hesitant to believe that the VR market can rise so rapidly to prominence. The VR devices, while creating beautiful sceneries for the users to explore, are still cumbersome to wear on the face, and leave you disconnected from your immediate surroundings. So I prefer to stick to the old adage (allegedly by Arthur C. Clarke, and later proven by research in foresight) – “Experts are too optimistic in the near future, and too pessimistic in the long-run.”

These limitations will change in the future, and will most probably lead to the creation of augmented reality (AR) devices, which will look more like a normal pair of glasses, but with the pictures being displayed on the glasses themselves. In that way, the user will be able to see the physical world, along with the virtual world being overlaid on it.

Such AR glasses as described are already in existence, though they are still quite limited in capabilities. The Lumus glasses do just that, as do the Meta glasses. While both are still clunky, cumbersome, and have a limited field of view, they’re the early birds in the AR-Glasses field. If we assume that technology will keep on progressing (and honestly, I can’t see a way for it to stop!), we can be sure that the next AR-Glasses will be thinner, more energy-efficient, and more usable in general.

Let’s talk a bit about the games that AR and VR could open up for us in the future.

Gaming and VR / AR

Using VR for gaming is a no brainer. In fact, that’s the main use analysts are thinking about for VR in the next five years. Imagine running in the virtual landscape of Azaroth in World of Warcraft, or climbing the virtual towers and cathedrals of Paris in Assassin’s Creed. Those are experiences that will make the hardcore gamers flock to VR.

However, I would like to consider a different sort of gaming – one that might be accomplished by means of AR. The gamer of the not-so-far-away-future may actually be the athletic sort, because many games would be played on the streets of the city. By using AR-Glasses, every player would see a different image of the street: some will see the street as a dungeon with a dragon at its end, while others will find themselves forced to evade virtual deadly robots on the prowl, and still others would chase virtual butterflies on the pavement. Admittedly, that’s one crowded street!

Ok, this idea sounds a bit silly when you consider all the human congestion and potential traffic accidents that could occur, but there is definitely a case for streets and physical infrastructures that would be used as playing ground for the hard-core gamers. Even ‘soft gamers’ like most of us could find themselves taking a walk or a jog in seemingly-ordinary streets, with the AR-Glasses in our eyes turning the jog into a run from a dragon (with extra points if you make it out safely!) or involving some interesting activity while walking, like finding and picking up virtual playing cards on the pavement.

There are tantalizing hints in the present for this sort of outdoors-gaming. The “Zombies, Run!” game for the smartphone, is all about being chased by zombies in the real world. The zombies, of course, are virtual and you can only hear them behind you as you run, with the narrator giving you missions. Also, the more you run, the more supplies you collect automatically to build up your base. Another app, by the Mobile Art Lab in Japan, lets you see butterflies through your iPhone’s camera, and swipe at them to catch them – and turn them into discount coupons for restaurants.

Perhaps the most impressive example (although it’s more of a publicity stunt than anything else) of what augmented reality could do for the gaming world has been shown recently by Magic Leap – an AR company, obviously. Take a look!

Obviously, these are only hints for the future, but they’re pointing at an amazingly colorful and fascinating future for us all. The virtual world will no longer be far away from us, or force us to take our smartphones from our pockets. Rather, it would be all around us, and we’ll be able to see and hear it via the AR-Glasses and earbuds that we carry all the time.

The Challenges

Why isn’t this future not here by now? The challenges can be divided into two sorts: technological challenges and societal ones.

The technological challenges consist mainly of battery limits, which have been the ban of smartphones and other wearable computing so far. In the case of highly-sophisticated equipment such as AR-Glasses, the size of the projectors that send pictures to your eyes or onto the glasses is also a problem, and makes for extremely unfashionable glasses. Interestingly, the computing power does not seem to be a real challenge on its own, since AR-Glasses and other wearable computing devices could use the smartphone in one’s pocket to do most of the toughest computing tasks for them… which brings us back to the need to invent more efficient and long-lasting batteries for the smartphone as well.

None of these technological challenges represents an impassable barrier. In fact, if there’s one thing we can promise, it’s that future devices will have more efficient batteries, and will have the potential to be smaller. The trends indicate clearly that batteries are rapidly making progress towards better energy density.

The growth in batteries energy density over time. Originally from "Thermodynamic analysis on energy densities of batteries"
The growth in batteries energy density over time.
Originally from the paper “Thermodynamic analysis on energy densities of batteries“, which was brought to my attention in Quora.

The other big challenge is the societal one, and this is where Google Glass crashed into a wall. People simply did not like the fact that the person they’re speaking with could take a picture or a video of them at any time, or may even watch porn during a face-to-face conversation. The design of the Google Glass itself did not do anything to ameliorate those anxieties, and thus people just stopped using the Glasses to avoid becoming social pariahs.

While many believe the Google Glass has completely failed, we must remember that every device begins as a partial failure, since nobody knows how it will be used or how people will react to it. Google Glass was an experiment in design, and Google is now working relentlessly towards Google Glass 2.0, which will fit better with people’s desires and uses.

In short, while there are still challenges to the AR scene, they will be solved sooner or later. Any other conclusion forces us to think that somehow technology will cease to evolve and that companies will stop adapting their products to the consumer market, and I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

Conclusion

There are plenty of uses for virtual and augmented realities other than gaming, and in future posts we’ll deal with them as well. For now, I hope I’ve convinced you that at least part of the gaming activity would not take place solely in front of a screen, but in the streets and the parks. It’s going to be a pretty interesting world to live in, full of colors and messages and experiences that will blend seamlessly with the physical world.

And wouldn’t you like to play such games?

Systematic Inventive Thinking, and Ways to Use Genetically Engineered Plants for Advertising

While visiting the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Rhode Island, I happened to take this photo of genetically modified pumpkins displaying a wide range of advertising materials, apparently for the corporate sponsors of zoo activities.

A Genetically Engineered Pumpkin Advertisement, from the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Rhode Island. (Well, they're more of the ordinary painted/carved pumpkins, but it sounds way cooler when you think they might be engineered to produce these writings)
A Genetically Engineered Pumpkin Advertisement, from the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Rhode Island.
(Well, they’re more of the ordinary painted/carved pumpkins, but it sounds way cooler when you think they might be engineered to produce these writings)

Well, obviously the pumpkins aren’t actually genetically modified – they were just painted or sculpted by human artists – but in the rate genetic engineering is progressing, it’s quite possible that in a few decades we will have genetically modified fruits and vegetables that actually display readable advertisement on them as they grow up.

Now wouldn’t that be interesting?

I decided to take this chance and consider innovative ways in which future GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) could be used to promote and advertise products, ideas and corporates. In order to do that I utilized a fascinating systemic thinking system for innovation around which an entire consulting company called SIT (Systematic Inventive Thinking) was founded.

The principles of the SIT system have been described in a 2003 article in Harvard Business Review. In short, the main idea is to limit your creativity instead of trying to stretch it sky-high. Why is that so important? Consider that you’re on a first date, and the girl (or boy) is leaning forward across the table and is asking you that ages-old question: “Tell me about yourself!”

If you’re like most human beings, you probably freeze in complete bewilderment, unsure where to begin or to end, and what you should actually talk about. You’re lost in the chaos of your own mind, sinking below the waves of many thoughts and impulses: should you tell her about your trip to India? Or maybe about your ambitions for the future? Or maybe she really wants to hear about your bar-mitzvah?

Coming up with creative and innovative ideas is similar to dating, at least in this view. Many executives tell their staff to find and implement creative ideas in their product, leaving them floundering and resentful. Many (too many) creativity workshops look that way too: with round tables of employees and executives who are told to be creative and just to “think up a new innovative product for the company!”

Such exercises rarely lead to good results. At best, the participants fall back on whatever ideas they’ve read or thought about before, and almost no new or innovative notions are being produced at those meetings.

Now consider the alternative dating scene: your date asks you a very simple question – “What did you eat this morning?” In this case, the answer is clear. You have a starting point that is safe and sound, and while admittedly it is not very interesting, the conversation and the jokes can start flowing from that point onwards. It works the same way with creativity: by putting constraints on your thinking process in a systematic fashion, you’re actually capable of analyzing the situation in an orderly way, and develop each innovative case fully at a time.

The SIT method places constraints over the innovation process by forcing the thinkers to consider innovative changes to the current product in only five different directions: subtraction, multiplication, division, task unification, and attribute dependency. Let’s go over each one to think up innovative ways GE plants could be used for advertisement.

SIT Thinking Tools

Subtraction

Subtraction means that instead of our natural tendency to add features to an existing product, we remove existing features, particularly the kind that seem vital and necessary.

How does this thinking tool relate to GMO? Well, what would happen if we were to engineer a fruit without its skin or outer covering? The skin of the fruit obviously serves to protect the soft and squishy interior, so it’s definitely an important part of the product. However, maybe we could make the skin thinner and translucent, so that the consumer would see what they’re getting inside the fruit: they’ll see whether the banana has dark stains on its edible part, and if the tomato is rotten or has worms. That would certainly be an interesting advertisement maneuver: “We don’t have anything to hide!”

Multiplication

By applying the multiplication thinking tool, we multiply – add more copies of – certain existing components of the product, but then alter them in a significant way. Gillette’s double-bladed razor is a well-known example: they added an extra blade, and then found a different use for it on the other side of the razor.

How about, then, that we engineer the fruit to contain more seeds – but ones that are actually viable, and grow into some interesting and different kinds of fruit? The fruit’s manufacturer could bring the fruit to market as a tool for teaching children about the natural world, and even create a competition to find that “one golden seed” hiding in every one fruit out of a hundred, and out of which a truly extraordinary fruit will grow.

Division

The division tool makes us divide the product into its separate components – and then recombine them in some new way. In the case of genetically modified fruit, we can roughly separate the ‘product’ into seeds, edible flesh, skin and a stem. How can we mix the three to make the final product more valuable for advertisers? Here’s an idea: make the seeds grow on the surface of the fruit, but make them as small as speckles, adding a shine to the fruit. Or maybe make the stem go through the entire fruit, like a skewer, and promote the fruit as one that can be easily roasted over a grill.

Task Unification

Which two tasks can be unified into a single component of the fruit? This one is easy: make the stem tasty, so that it can be eaten as a snack next to the fleshy fruit. One can also imagine fruits that contain therapeutic materials, so that eating them serves a double purpose: get thin, and get healthy.

Attribute Dependency Change

The components and attributes of every product depend, in part, on its environment. Shoes for girls, for example, often come in pink (attribute: color). Watermelons are often sold in summertime, which is another relation between an attribute (time of sale) and the product.

Using this thinking tool, we can really go wild. If we only focus on color as an attribute, we can engineer fruit that changes its color visibly when it’s infected by certain bacteria, or that its color can tell when the fruit was picked up from the field, assuring the consumer that they’re getting fresh produce. And this is just the beginning, since we can also play with the smell, touch, and even weight and size of the fruit. So many opportunities here!

Conclusion

You may or may not like the ideas I gave for genetic engineering of plants. Regardless, this post was primarily an exercise in innovative thinking meant to provide a sneak peek at a wonderful methodology for innovation. You are warmly invited to suggest more ideas for genetic engineering of plants in the comments section, using the SIT methodology as a guide. And of course, you can use the principles of the SIT Methodology to innovate your own ideas for a product, service or company.

I’m sure you’ll make good use of the methodology, and will discover that innovating under constraints is as useful as it is fun.

Enjoy!

First Human Undergoes a Genetic Engineering Treatment to Reverse Aging

Somewhere in the world, in an undisclosed location, an individual is being genetically engineered right now in order to fulfill humanity’s long-time dream: to reverse biological aging, and become young again. The treatment is provided by BioViva, a small company with incredibly large dreams.

BioViva’s CEO, Elizabeth Parrish, announced that the treatment is composed of two different therapies, which have been developed and applied outside the USA. The patient is doing well at the moment, and will be routinely checked and evaluated, so that within twelve months we can expect some preliminary results.

I wrote a lot in the past about the future of radical longevity – i.e. extending the lifespan of ordinary human beings to a hundred years and more. The field excites me – and quite frankly, if you’re not exhilarated about any progress at all that happens in the field of life extension, then you must have completely managed to forget that you’re going to die someday from old age. Yeah, sorry about that.

I contacted Parrish and requested an interview, and she was kind enough to grant it, and to reveal a vision for humanity’s future that is truly radical and fascinating, but may well come true within the next few decades. It is a vision in which humanity largely eradicates old age and diseases, reaches equality between human beings and nations, and dares greatly in order to achieve greatness.

Disclaimer: I edited the quotes by Ms. Parrish for clarity.

Elizabeth Parrish, CEO of BioViva. Image originally from BioViva.

Are They for Real?

After reading all the above, you would be justified asking: is Parrish and her company for real? Are they the real deal, doing actual science instead of general quackery?

While there is no way to know for sure, BioViva’s scientific advisory board contains some highly influential and prestigious scientists in the field of synthetic biology and longevity. It includes Prof. George Church from Harvard Medical School, who is one of the top experts in the world when it comes to genetic engineering. You can also find in there Dr. Aubrey de Grey – an advocate and a prophet of radical longevity.

The treatment enacted by BioViva, while still largely kept under wraps from the public, involves a combination of two different gene therapies: telomerase induction and myostatin inhibition. Telomerase controls the internal clock of each cell, and there’s evidence that myostatin inhibitors can reverse the accumulation of atherosclerotic plaques in veins. “We have that data in animals and in humans, but we need to run a clinical trial.” Says Parrish.

That is where the patient – the one receiving the combined therapy – comes into the picture. Apparently, he is a volunteer who has decided to sacrifice – or enhance – his body for science. While Parrish is reluctant to reveal his identity, she agreed to say that he’s in his 40s, and relatively healthy.

“We believe it is perfect because we could work with someone who was not in the worst stage of illness.” She explains.

The experiments are taking place outside the U.S. since “we didn’t want to deal with legal issues giving the treatment in the US, and it’s less expensive,” as Parrish puts it. If this sounds callous to you, you should know that many other pharmaceutical companies, including industry giants like Merck and Johnson & Johnson, are conducting their research outside the U.S. as well.

In general, Parrish isn’t holding much stock with the FDA and other governmental bodies that attempt to regulate medicine in the United States. “The first amendment protects your right over your body, to do with as you wish.” She states calmly. “I don’t think the government has a right to tell you what to do with your body, as long as it does not affect other people.”

And herein seems to lie one of the most interesting questions for the future of aging: assuming BioViva’s treatment strikes water and succeeds, the public will surely clamor for the new fountain of youth. Will governments worldwide be able to regulate it? Or will this become the great new illegal drug of the new century? At the moment, governments largely endorse medicine that is focuses on repairing the body. Will those governments be as happy to support human enhancement procedures?

“I think that what matters is the public demand, and the government will change its regulation according to public demand.” Says Parrish. And if the government doesn’t budge, then “a lot of people will go outside the country to get the treatment, and it may make some small countries very rich. Israel may become one of these countries, since it is very much ahead in research and very open to biotech. Another place is Japan, which has recently loosened its regulation on experimental medicine.”

The Future of Aging

So far, the medical sciences have mostly focused on repairing the damages being caused to the body over one’s lifetime. Parrish’s solution is much more radical and pro-active: she wants to hold back aging itself, since aging is correlated with so many other diseases. And she’s certain of success.

“The line between enhancement and preventative medicine will be blurry in the future.” She forecasts. “People will be taking gene therapy at younger and younger ages. This will probably be a twenty years process, but I believe that when you get to middle age, gene therapy will be given essentially as immunization to aging.”

This forecast, of course, partly relies on the current experiment having successful outcomes. Parrish is hopeful to see several different effects in the human patient, which include “outward markers like skin becoming youthful again, internal organs becoming healthy, increase in brain function and muscle mass, and better cardiovascular health.” All of the above effects were demonstrated in animal models, but never before in an experiment dedicated specifically to show that we can turn back biological aging.

Parrish expects to have preliminary results in the next twelve months. Until that happens, I take the chance to ask her what their next move will be, should the patient indeed regain some of his youth back. In that case, she says, BioViva would love to take this treatment through the FDA treatment approval process. But there is only one problem: “The FDA doesn’t consider aging as a disease.”

This is a mindset that Parrish has set out to change. Instead of trying to pop a pill for every different disease, we should go deeper and fix the aging process itself. “Every drug the FDA has passed, is still an experiment, and you’ll probably die – usually because of the disease the drug was supposed to take care of.” She says.

Parrish hopes that in twenty years they will get the costs down so that the average citizen would be able to pay for this treatment. “It’s cost effective,” she says, “because the US government is spending trillions for treating age-related diseases. So we hope it would get to everyone.”

As soon as the treatment becomes cheap enough, she will be the first to give it a shot. “I am 44, and I would say I have a chance to enjoy this treatment myself. I would absolutely take it right now, and my whole team would (our medical advisor has undergone the myostatin inhibition treatment five years ago), but the costs of the therapeutic are very high.”

Conclusion

It is almost certain that BioViva’s treatment will fail in the short run. Virtually no experiment in biology or in medicine ever works out the way it should for the first time, and there’s no reason to believe that BioViva’s treatment will be any different. However, we should not view this experiment as a one-time effort, but as one of the cobblestones in the path ahead.

The convictions upon which Parrish makes her case rely on the right of the individual over his or her body, the disillusionment with the power of the government to decide what’s best for the citizen, and moreover – on the realization that we can fix nature and reprogram our body as we desire. And in her words, as they are quoted in the BioViva site: “we want to make you smarter, stronger, faster and more visually accurate, and I think that is a good thing.”

Smarter, stronger, faster… and younger?

Sign me in.

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Featured image at top of article is originally from Flickr user Arileu