Keep Calm and Carry On – Reacting to the Boston Marathon Bombing

Runners continue to run towards the finish line as an explosion erupts at the finish line of the Boston MarathonI’ve had some deep discussions today about the Boston Marathon bombings with friends. Here’s something I shared with a friend who lives in the Boston area in Massachusetts. His predominant feeling right now is disillusionment. If you’re in the same boat, I hope you find it helpful in some way. Thanks for any feedback.

Friend, I hope this event won’t shake your faith in humanity or in the continued acceleration of global progress, or in our ability to better understand what progress is, and for reasons yet to be discovered, why accelerating progress seems only partly under our control, and partly driven by the amazingly intelligent and self-correcting environment into which we were born.

acooperativespecies2011There are always half of one percent of us who are seriously broken in some way. It is surprising, when you stop to think about it, that majority of us are so strongly against doing such cowardly and terrible things. Almost all violence is rapidly self-limiting. It can be a calculation of fairness, a seeking of justice in the wild. Or a case of beliefs being seriously out of step with reality, or emotions not being sufficiently regulated. Fortunately, for the vast majority of us, our moral sentiments and desire to cooperate are incredibly deep, selected and self-organized over countless previous life cycles. At the same time, our tools and policies for protecting the world system get only better and smarter. We must understand these processes better, and aggressively work to improve them in society and the individual.

the.transparent.society1998The mentally ill, extremists and oligarchs throughout history are a persistently tiny fraction of society. The main effect of mental illness events like this (these particular bombings, irrational as they are, are even more a mental and psychological illness than an extremist/terrorist event, as I see it), aside from their tragic short-term cost, is to grow our global immunity to them in future years. If we learn from them (a critical “if”), they accelerate the emergence of the transparency tools and social development programs that we know is our future, and as long as it is increasingly a bottom-up, citizen-driven transparency and social development process, we gain greater control over both the extremists and the autocrats, our democracy strengthens, and the world gets collectively more intelligent. Imagine, as social and media futurist Alvis Brigis says, if it was ten years in the future and one out of twenty people in that Boston crowd had been wearing Google Glass or an equivalent? (I’m a Glass Explorer, so I’m looking forward to getting an early adopter version of this fantastic new wearable computer and lifelogging tech). They’d all be able to share their recent archives and feeds and it wouldn’t be long before we’d have the perpetrators identities and last public locations.

Mental illness is one issue, but what about oligarchy (government by elites, without representation) and plutocracy (government by the wealthy), and the way such governments breed extremism in the developing world by replacing culture with commercialism, removing self-determination and representation, and inducing cornered cultures to react with Fundamentalism? If increasing political, economic, and social fairness is a clear vector of social progress, how do we keep building it in all our societies in the years ahead?

With regard to the plutocrats, there is good news: our global rich poor divide has never been smaller. It was highest in the 13th century  under Feudalism by several measures, and has slowly decreased ever since. But the problem we face is that in the world’s leading and fastest developing countries inequality seesaws, at first going up as the wealth of new technology revolutions is initially captured by the well-capitalized few, and then later down again as the revolution works its way out to the many, where the maturing and cheapening tech allows disruptive new entrepreneurship on top of the platform, and as new rights and entitlements eventually emerge.


The Finland Phenomenon, a great film on the education reform the US needs for more self-reliant and less fearful citizens.

The Finland Phenomenon, a great film on the education reform the US needs to make more self-reliant, innovative, and less fearful citizens.

As Joseph Stiglitz discusses in The Price of Inequality, 2013, we need a certain amount of income inequality to spur innovation, but if we let it get too big, the wealthy and the corporations capture our political machinery, only their interests are represented, and democracy, political reform, and political compromise and moderation die. Due to tech globalization’s great wealth creation, income inequality has grown rapidly in the last 60 years in a handful of nations, in the 1970’s-80’s in the US, UK, and Israel, and in the 1990’s and 2000’s also in rapidly developing countries like China and Brazil (and to a much lower degree, in a few low-inequality countries like Germany and Sweden). In the U.S., asset inequality is now so extreme that just 1% of us own 40% of the nation’s wealth. When our lower and middle classes can no longer find meaningful jobs under constant technological change, while we see other developed nations doing far better with education and job creation, we should not be surprised. We let this happen, by letting our MNCs get larger than governments (instead of splitting them up, as we used to), and by dismantling progressive income and inheritance tax for the wealthy (which last existed seriously in the US in the 1950’s).

To bring this back to the theme of this post, another big price of plutocracy is that our citizens lose the ability to engage with the developing world an empathic and positive-sum way, and our fear grows. We fear technological progress, as the job disruption dumps us into a degraded society that doesn’t keep job creation and retraining as the top priority. We fear the further loss of jobs via outsourcing. We fear immigration, and forget that merit-based immigration is one of the fastest creators of new jobs, science, and industries. We fear other belief systems, and we demonize the other, rather than finding common cause with the moderates in every religion and group. As our political system gets captured by unresponsive and polarized elites (they are wealth driven and fight hard to divide the spoils among themselves), tough social problems like educational reform don’t get done. See The Finland Phenomenon for an excellent example of what we can will one day do to fix our broken educational system, when we finally get the political will. In the meantime, our citizens grow increasingly globally ignorant, inward-focused, and politically apathetic, or polarized and uncompromising like their wealthy masters.

Source: Growing Unequal?, OECD 2008. <BR> Click the graphic for the report.

Source: Growing Unequal?, OECD 2008.
Click the graphic for the report.

But, thank the Universe, America is an outlier, with our elites capturing such an outsized portion of the new technological wealth in the last six decades that we are going temporarily against the global trend. We will eventually reverse this and be forced, by accelerating technoeconomic integration, to get back to the global trend. The developed OCED countries as a whole aren’t following our sad course of sixty years of rapidly increasing income inequality and 60% higher levels of income poverty, as the 2008 OECD graphic at right shows. Remember that for the global economy, the absolute size of the inequity gap is still closing since Feudalism. As visionary books like Abundance, 2012, make clear, we can see how extreme global economic and educational poverty will disappear just a few decades hence.  Many of the emerging nations are now in the process of growing their GDP two or three times faster than us. Check out for some beautiful graphs telling that story. If we’re thinking at all about accelerating tech, we can see a new world of the conversational interface and of teacherless education (to use futurist Thomas Frey’s great phrase) less than ten years hence, where every literate and illiterate child has a wearable waterproof smartphone on their wrist, listening in to what they are learning and teaching them who knows what.

Accelerating technology always causes evolutionary disruption in the first phase. More money goes to the rich and the leading corporations, at first, rather than the rest of society from any new technological and trade revolution, be it industrial, transportation, mass consumption, communications, personal computing, internet, web services, or any other revolution affecting the global marketplace. In the U.S. and a few other countries, these and other revolutions have been the dominant story of the latest 60 years of globalization. In turn, the vast new wealth increase of the MNCs, many of whom now have revenues larger than those of the leading countries, and their unrestrained effects on the developing world, has been a great driver of the clash of cultures and the extremist events we see today. We are pushing citizens in many of these cultures to change at a rate far faster than their reformists are comfortable with, and successive waves of technology innovation are driving them (and us, but always to a far lesser degree) continually out of their livelihoods into a globally wealthier but, in the absence of good retraining and social safety nets, a much more socially uncertain future.

virtuous_circleantifragileEventually the global system, being not only evolutionary but also developmental, always gains irreversible new levels of total positive-sum integration, and immunity. For the system as a whole, virtuous cycles are always underway and antifragility will increasingly dominate, if global development is like living systems development, as I believe it is. I hope you can find a way to see and guide the positive changes that will come from this tragic event, as they surely must.

Bruce Schneier, Security Maven

Bruce Schneier, Security Maven

So regarding our emotions and actions around this bombing, with a potential to cause disproportionate fear and immune response, as occurred after 9/11, I think Bruce Schneier’s brief piece in The Atlantic says it best: Keep Calm and Carry On.” Let’s not overreact, overspend, overregulate. Let’s not fixate on or overgeneralize this rare event itself, or get scared. Let’s continue to work calmly on the social development processes (income equity, representation, education, psych services, job creation, civics, religious tolerance and reform) that will reduce the probability of this happening again, and the transparency processes (primarily bottom up, and secondarily top down cameras, sensors, networks, databases, pattern recognizers, human intelligence) that will increase our ability to find, isolate, and help (or at least, prevent from further harm) the broken folks or individual who did this.

Let’s implement our actions carefully and incrementally, while always insuring their social benefits exceed their costs. Let’s keep calm and carry on.

Leadership of Technological Change (35 min video)

A recent keynote, at USNI’s West Conference, Jan 2013, San Diego, CA. The talk has three parts:

1. A brief intro to evolutionary developmental foresight, a strategically useful theory of change for leaders,

2. A selection of important developmental (highly probable) opportunities, disruptions, and threats I think we can expect in coming years due to accelerating technological change,

3. Strategies for innovation, management, and foresight (IMF) with respect to technological change that can be employed by middle and senior mgmt.

Those who want one quick takeaway may enjoy the last minute, starting at 35:06, which wraps up with a Navy innovation brand vision for an Open Oceans GIS Platform. I think something like this could be a big win-win for Navy global transparency and partnership activities, and with luck, some Navy service leader is out there now championing a variant of this idea.

Hope you like it! As always let me know your thoughts below or by email (johnsmart{at}accelerating{dot}org),  thanks.

Obama’s BRAIN Initiative – A Poor Start On a Brain Mapping Vision

This post goes in my deviants category, as it is about someone who I believe has made an important but correctable mistake, who could know better, and who therefore deserves to be called out and reproved, so they might act better in the future.

obamabraininitiativeObama’s BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative, announced today, concerns what is arguably the most important scientific project we humans are doing today: figuring out how higher biological intelligence works, by exploring and mapping it in living and preserved brains all relevant resolutions. Neuroscientists have developed powerful new mapping tools and software in two main categories. Functional connectomics (also called Brain Activity Maps) is the process of mapping synaptic connectivity and neural activity to biological function, including memory, in living brains. To make these maps we have new tools for monitoring neural action in vivo at molecular, cellular and circuit levels, like optogenetics, calcium imaging, nanoparticle sensors, and other clever advances. Structural connectomics (also called just Connectomics Maps) is the process of mapping synaptic, cellular, and nuclear (epigenetic) information in chemically preserved, nonliving brains (worms, flies, snails, zebrafish, mice, monkeys, humans, etc.), as a path to figuring out function. There are also new tools and software for the automated slicing, scanning, and mapping of synaptic connections. It was observation of the rapid advances in these areas that led led Ken Hayworth and I to co-found the Brain Preservation Foundation in 2010.

The new idea is that combining these two forms of brain mapping may finally allow us to uncover the neural coding system, the ways networks of neurons store short and long term information in their association patterns and strengths. The paper that launched the Brain Activity Map proposal is The Brain Activity Map Project and the Challenge of Functional Connectomics, Alvisatros, Neuron 74, June 21, 2012 (5 pp). It’s a great intro to the exciting promise of this field, and a call to action. Wikipedia has no page yet on functional connectomics (perhaps a neuroscientist will start one) but they do have a page now on the BRAIN Initiative.

There are many potential benefits to functional and structural connectomics for science and medicine, but their greatest promise, in my opinion, is that they will accelerate our ability to build intelligence in our much faster and eventually far more capable electronic systems. Some of the brain’s circuit structure and function will turn out to be highly similar from brain to brain (developmental) and some will be unpredictably different (sometimes called “evolutionary” or “Darwinian” differences). Understanding the developmental parts of the brain, and how they constrain and enable the evolutionary parts, will get us much farther down the road of building self-improving artificial intelligences. Activity and connectomics maps, and a few other new tools for monitoring neural activity at molecular scale will of course provide many medical and neuroscientific benefits, and these can be sold most easily to the general public, but the intelligence benefit for science and society, via advances in computational neuroscience and machine learning may quickly become the most important for us.

brainchangesitselfObama hinted in his State of the Union address in February that he wanted to see America’s brain-mapping and related neuroscience efforts  “reach level of research and development not seen since the height of the Space Race.”  Science writer John Markoff, in a great NYT article Feb 17th, summarized the views of the founding scientists behind the Brain Activity Map proposal, that funding on the order of $3B, or $300M/year, should be publicly committed to this project. That would make it less than the $3.8B we spent on the Human Genome Project from 1998-2003, an investment which returned, according to a 2011 Battelle report, $796B in new economic activity between 1998 and 2010. A return on investment of greater than 200, one of those rare ROIs you see when opening up an entirely new field.

Functional and Structural Connectomics promises to have that same kind of fundamental impact, opening up neuroscience and bringing all the benefits of understanding natural intelligent systems to the technology world. In addition, understanding how the brain uses connectionist features like redundancy and neuroplasticity to protect its critical functions would be huge advances for medical science and therapy. I recommend reading Norman Doidge, in The Brain that Changes Itself, 2007,  for fantastic and motivating examples of how resilient our brains can be to memory loss and damage.

Unfortunately, in his announcement today President Obama has committed just $100M to the project for its first year budget. And the money committed so far is a hodge-podge that is not project or map focused. Consider that Europe’s Human Brain Project just got $1.3B committed from the EU for the next ten years, even though that project is doing far more theoretical, lower-resolution simulation work that will be highly likely to have a much poorer payoff, in a world where we haven’t yet cracked the static and dynamic neural coding algorithms. Yes, the Human Genome Project started with the same small seed funding of around $100M the first year. But that was when genomics was untested, proteomics a dream, and understanding and mapping the brain still largely unreachable. We’re way beyond those early days now. We know how important maps are, and that we have tools available to make them, and the data sciences folks and hardware to analyze all the new public domain data that will result. It’s time to match real funds with the rhetoric.

As I said, the scientists involved in the BRAIN initiative know we’ll need at least $3B to make major discoveries with activity maps alone, and this doesn’t even include connectomics maps, which deserve a few billion as well, if we really want to figure out the neural coding language in any complex animal (say, a fly, or perhaps an Etruscan shrew, a mammal with only 1 million neurons). $5B is not a lot of money for the incredible intellectual advances we can expect. To put this in perspective, we are presently spending $85 billion per month on QE3. Obama cobbled this $100M together by redirecting existing funds in NIH, DARPA, and NSF budgets, so it isn’t even new money, it’s just reclassified R&D. An NIH working group has been designated to develop a multi-year plan with cost estimates by June 2014, and Obama has fast tracked the group by asking for an interim report by fall 2013. But its still quite unclear what the goals of the project are, and whether connectomics maps will even play a role.  If they pass on funding synapse-level connectomics maps, that will be a major failure of nerve.

Isn’t $100M a great start for Year 1? Not in my book. What would have been commendable, for a project with this magnitude of potential benefit, would have been starting with a level of finding that is ten times more, or at least a billion dollars up front, and a commitment to seek at least a billion a year for the next ten years. That’s enough to influence students to enter into this field, and would place this project in the light it deserves – one of the best science projects we could work on at this unique point in human history. We should and can demand a lot more from this second term president, particularly one who understands science and tech the way he does. Obama has committed to a commission to study the bioethical issues that might emerge (a concession to conservatives perhaps), but so far his “dream team” of 15 neuroscientists have not committed to connectomics maps, as far as I’ve read. Perhaps they will, but given the vagueness of today’s announcement, it’s quite possible we we’ll see something better in the future. But this isn’t the kind of start that inspires confidence.

Ultimately, as readers of this blog know, whether second-term American politicians have the courage to say it publicly or not yet, smarter machines, even more than adding more 20th century-style jobs, have become the primary wealth creator in the developed world, so that’s where our thoughts should go first, as we look for ways to improve our lot. I think it’s time we got serious as a species about realizing what kind of progress the universe has engaged us in. We are here to use our wits and works to become something greater than ourselves. Our highest role appears to be to take what the universe has done with us and make something even smarter, more ethical, more productive, and more resilient as our progeny. This is what civilization has been about, since the birth of technology, as I see it.

Want to let the Obama administration know your thoughts on making Brain Mapping, including connectomics maps, a top funding priority? You can send a brief email to the White House by using this form, as I have. Thanks.

A "clarified" brain (lipids removed, everything else in place). Transparent to optical microscopy, all the proteins, receptors, RNAs able to be repetitively interrogated with molecular probes. Amazing!

A “clarified” mouse brain at right (lipids removed, all else stays in place). Transparent to optical microscopy, all proteins, receptors, RNAs can be repetitively interrogated with molecular probes. Amazing!

4/18/2013 Update: The Stanford press release on 4/10 announcing CLARITY, the Karl Deisseroth lab’s amazing new method for optically transparent brain mapping, just makes what I said above more appropriate and urgent, from my perspective. Deisseroth is one of the 15 experts on Obama’s neuroscience dream team, so I’m sure he advised the White House of its implications. The CLARITY paper was accepted for review at Nature in September 2012. The CLARITY method is like PCR, a multipurpose, revolutionary new research tool that will open up vast new imaging and molecular phenotyping research capabilities in any biological tissue, and in particular the brain. Salk’s Terry Sejnowski said: “It’s exactly the technique everyone’s been waiting for.” He told the Associate Press that it will speed up brain anatomy research by “10 to 100 times.”

And yet Obama’s team still proposed just $100M in funding for brain mapping for the first year. That’s simply ridiculous. Please, America, wake up! It’s time to spend some real money on neuroscience and bust humanity out of its ignorance. Stop being scared of how much better things will soon be, once we’ve cracked the riddles of neural information processing. Someone also needs to give Deisseroth a serious prize or two. Optogenetics and CLARITY, both out of his lab, are each profoundly important biological sciences breakthroughs.

10/27/2013 Update: Ugh! Obama’s BRAIN initiative (April 2013) has barely started and it’s already been co-opted. Politics is not pretty.

DARPA will spend their chunk of the funds (half of the money we’ve committed so far to the initiative, $70M over five years, which is peanuts, as I’ve said before) on a very-low-yield clinical project (deep brain monitoring and stimulation) vs a multipronged effort to improve human brain structural and functional connectomics (circuit tracing, electrical activity mapping, optogenetics, nanosensors). The potential for brain mapping as the #1 focus of the initiative is gone, mere months after they announced it.

Apparently Obama got the wrong partners (DARPA, NSF, NIH) together for his BRAIN initiative. The 2012 Brain Activity Map proposal that Alvisatros, Church and others made to the White House was all about functional connectomics. This has now taken a back seat to deep brain stimulation and monitoring experiments. Drats! I like DARPA, but I’m sure that initiative mostly won’t work, without functional maps, and I’m not even a neuroscientist. But DARPA likes clinical work with near-term potential benefit (or at least the potential promise of it). It would have taken a firm hand to keep them focused on Brain Mapping, which is the real prize accessible to science, at this stage of our collective technical abilities (more accurately, ineptitude) when it comes to the brain. That leadership is missing today.

We need a lot more money, at least a billion dollars a year, devoted to funding the Basic Science of structural and functional Brain Maps, not these expensive clinical junkets. How else can we solve the memory code, and thereby understand how neural nets actually work, and thus make better AIs? Or, as my friend Steve Coles, MD, PhD says, what is the genetic reason why we humans have a Broca’s area and chimps don’t? What is the connectomics of higher intelligence? All most future-important questions about human, social, and machine intelligence are dependent on better brain maps. Ken Hayworth and I started the Brain Preservation Foundation ( in 2010 with the realization that these maps are coming, and will greatly improve our understanding of who we are, and what we can do with our memories and identities after biological death.

One fine day we can expect a real Human Brain Mapping initiative, one that really does greatly improve our collective understanding of the brain, for all humanity, for all time. Just like the Human Genome Project uncovered the epigenome and illuminated the proteome, and now we need Human Epigenome and Proteome Projects, which also haven’t materialized, because we are so broke and unmotivated to do Big Life Science.

The world needs Brain Maps, Epigenome Maps and Proteome Maps as the new science moonshots for the next five to ten years. These would be completed under budget and under time with more powerful computers than we expected, just like the HGP was.

In the meantime, we get this BRAIN initiative elephant, designed by committee. This is a major loss of vision and leadership here. #ObamaFail

Vote for scientific and technical leadership in 2016, irrespective of party. It’s high time we get some representatives who see, sooner or later, how extraordinary humanity’s future will be. Sooner would be nice, eh?

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