Got some fun speaking gigs lined up, mainly going to be talking (somewhat obliquely) about my work at Google AI over the last few years and why we need to make centaurs not butlers.




Then I’ll probably shut up again for a few years.

“Did you know cake tastes better on the moon? If you went to Earth and had cake you’d be so disappointed. It’d be flat and heavy and solid. It’s to do with pore size and crumb structure, and crumb structure is so much better on the moon. Every cake you make is three kinds of science: chemistry, physics and architecture. The physics is about heat, gas expansion and gravity. Your raising agents push up against gravity. The less gravity, the higher it raises. You might think, so, if lower gravity makes for better crumb structure, wouldn’t the perfect cake be one you made in zero gee? Actually, no. It would expand in all directions and you’d end up with a big ball of fizzing cake mix. When you came to bake it, it would be very difficult to get heat to the centre of the cake. You would end up with a soggy heart.”

Charlie Stross on why he mainly no longer reads science fiction books.

The exercise of substituting “SF” for “Design” or “Speculative Design” is left to the reader.

Similar to the sad baggage surrounding space battles and asteroid belts, we carry real world baggage with us into SF. It happens whenever we fail to question our assumptions. Next time you read a a work of SF ask yourself whether the protagonists have a healthy work/life balance. No, really: what is this thing called a job, and what is it doing in my post-scarcity interplanetary future? Why is this side-effect of carbon energy economics clogging up my post-climate-change world? Where does the concept of a paid occupation whereby individuals auction some portion of their lifespan to third parties as labour in return for money come from historically? What is the social structure of a posthuman lifespan? What are the medical and demographic constraints upon what we do at different ages if our average life expectancy is 200? Why is gender? Where is the world of childhood?

Some of these things may feel like constants, but they’re really not. Humans are social organisms, our technologies are part of our cultures, and the way we live is largely determined by this stuff. Alienated labour as we know it today, distinct from identity, didn’t exist in its current form before the industrial revolution. Look back two centuries, to before the germ theory of disease brought vaccination and medical hygeine: about 50% of children died before reaching maturity and up to 10% of pregnancies ended in maternal death—childbearing killed a significant minority of women and consumed huge amounts of labour, just to maintain a stable population, at gigantic and unpleasant (to them) social cost. Energy economics depended on static power sources (windmills and water wheels: sails on boats), or on muscle power. To an English writer of the 18th century, these must have looked like inevitable constraints on the shape of any conceivable future—but they weren’t.

Similarly, if I was to choose a candidate for the great clomping foot of nerdism afflicting fiction today, I’d pick late-period capitalism, the piss-polluted sea we fish are doomed to swim in. It seems inevitable but it’s a relatively recent development in historic terms, it’s clearly not sustainable in the long term. However, trying to visualize a world without it is surprisingly difficult. Take a random grab-bag of concepts and try to imagine the following without capitalism: “advertising”, “trophy wife”, “health insurance”, “jaywalking”, “passport”, “police”, “teen-ager”, “television”.

SF should—in my view—be draining the ocean and trying to see at a glance which of the gasping, flopping creatures on the sea bed might be lungfish. But too much SF shrugs at the state of our sea water and settles for draining the local aquarium (or even just the bathtub) instead, or settles for gazing into the depths of a brightly coloured computer-generated fishtank screensaver. If you’re writing a story that posits giant all-embracing interstellar space corporations, or a space mafia, or space battleships, never mind universalizing contemporary norms of gender, race, and power hierarchies, let alone fashions in clothing as social class signifiers, or religions … then you need to think long and hard about whether you’ve mistaken your fishtank for the ocean.

And I’m sick and tired of watching the goldfish.

Azeem’s excellent Exponential View newsletter this week published some predictions for 2018, which you should go take a look at.

A couple of weeks ago in a late night fugue of amateur futurism I sent an email to a few friends, looking a little bit further out and laden with bias / fiction / wishful thinking. Anyway – putting it here to re-examine in ten years time…

1) Hard Brexit happens to the UK by default, rather than planning.

2) UK becomes virtual client state of EU anyway, any business wanting to make money in goods or services (apart from hardliners like Witheredspoons and Dyson) has to ditch ideology and comply with EU regs, without any of the benefits to citizenry. Well done everyone.

3) USA becomes increasingly insular, either as result of second Trump term or more likely to concentrate on recovering from the first… GAFA gets bashed a lot over next 5yrs and plateaus, net-non-neutrality locks in incumbent value chains but favours big carriers/media not big tech.

4) GDPR and other citizen-centred regulation in EU (plus net-non-neutrality) push value models to ‘federated-edge’, Europe becomes IoT2.0 leader, esp around energy, manufacturing, logistics, auto/vehicular. Neural architectures start to dominate, blockchain-like federation of devices lowers reliance on centralised models of computing (and business)

5) European (esp French, German) startups focus on EU and Africa, to an extent Asia Minor and South Asia as markets. Edge-computing hybrids leapfrog solely cloud-centric business models in hipness if not value (yet).

5.1) EU open banking and finance laws + mobile money innovation around Africa make very attractive markets for edge-focussed fintech startups. The Swiss go all-in for this…

6) one of the Gulf states cashes out on oil, goes all-in on becoming a silicon manufacturer/designer/licenser, with focus on neural architectures, Indian and Chinese manufacturers license, buy or copy.

6.1) Tim Cook moves Apple corp HQ to Dubai. Significant automation in Apple supply chain + IP risks allow edge manufacturing of most of their premium hardware. Other members of GAFA pay attention as the fruit company leaves the plateau of the last few years behind.

7) Chinese firm announces it has an AGI running on a supercomputer running on UAE-designed chips.

8) Bezos announces Amazon to HQ in Zurich (and an orbital solar-powered blockchain datacore at LaGrange Point L1)

9) It’s 2027 and 60% of tech ‘unicorns’ are HQ’d in EU, UAE, India or Singapore.

10) UK joins special economic area of EU in order to adopt data laws formally. Press starts to refer to this as Brentrance…

If you (or anyone) still read this you’re probably aware I’ve been banging on about Centaurs for a little while.

I started idly sketching something that could become a shorthand for a ‘centaur’ actor in a system. The kind of visual shorthand that you might often use on whiteboards or in sketches of flows in designing interactive systems.

For example… back in 2006 I sketched this…

My first centaur symbol sketches… was trying to make it something quick and fluid but kept getting hung up on the tail…


I then progressed to subjecting colleagues (thanks Tim) to impromptu lifesize whiteboard centaur sketches…


But then I remembered Picasso’s 1949 light paintings of centaurs  which inspired me to do some quick long-exposure experiments.



Again, long-suffering colleagues were pressed into service (after buying them some beers…)

And I think that the constraint of having to paint the centaur body in a few seconds of long exposure got me to a more fluid, fluent expression


But then I think in the end it was Nuno who nailed the tail on this old designer…


More centaurs soon, no doubt.