Maslow And The Key To Being A Futurist

Thinking Like A Futurist

I’ve always thought like a futurist. Which leads me to make some pretty bold assertions about technology, and its impending impact in our lives. Much of this stems from a career in technology, across 4 continents and 3 decades. Foreseeing the impact of the Internet when you led inititatives like automatic, remote, backup services before the web in the ’90’s, or the impact of Cloud, after building one of the world’s first Application Services Provider in 2000, becomes automatic.

But there are plenty of technology initiatives, many of which have failed to take precedence, like 3D TV’s and WAP. Others that succeeded beyond anyone’s imagination, like SMS texting.

How Did Texting Go Viral?

Remember when you had to learn a new language because you only had 160 characters and a numberpad to send a text. When you could only text people on the same phone network, in the same country. And then when you had to pay more to send across networks.

How is it that financially strapped young people could suddenly afford inordinate amounts to buy a mobile phone, and deal with this cumbersome technology?


Here’s one of the keys I use to evaluate nascent technology. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Particularly the need for self-expression, connection.

I first learned the power of this when I was in the Air Force. We would be back from an exercise, exhausted and starving, in the meal queue, when mail arrived. To a man, anyone would leave sacrifice their place in line to get a letter from home.

Information and Communication Technology

This primal need drove language, writing, the printing press, the telegraph, and broadcast media like the radio and TV. It is the key to the rise of Mobile Phones (despite unwieldy SMS), to the Internet, to Smartphones, to YouTube, to Social Media. This is what drives Wearable Tech, IoT, Augmented and Virtual Reality.

3D  adds no connection over and above television, whereas SMS enables people to connect in a way unprecedented in history.

If you want to determine whether a technology will take off, pay heed to Maslow.

Why Your Job Safe From Artificial Intelligence (For Now)

The Rumour Of Artificial Intelligence Is Greatly Exaggerated

It’s easy to both over and under estimate the effect Artificial Intelligence, indeed automation in general, is going to have on our economy.

It’s also interesting to note the emotive reaction to this technology driven progress. Recently I was chatting to a work colleague, a fellow Chief Technologist, and he was vehement in his denial that driverless cars will replace cars any time soon, if at all. His rationale is that people ‘like driving’ too much.

My response is whilst there are many who enjoy driving (myself included, not to mention motorbike riding) very few enjoy congestion, commuting, RTA’s, traffic enforcement, let alone the expense of owning a car. We put up with all of that for convenience. There were probably an equal ratio of people that enjoyed riding horses a hundred years ago. You can still ride horses for leisure, but no longer do they make sense for transport.

Autonomous vehicles are coming. The financial, social, and healthcare benefits are far too compelling for this not to happen, and all of the automotive manufacturers have this in their plans.

So what does this mean for people that drive for a living? Truck drivers (the job with the highest employment in the US), bus drivers, taxi drivers absolutely face disruption. Well over 50% of these jobs will ‘disappear’ in the next 10-15 years.

Augmentation Not Replacement

AI is augmenting our cognitive skills in the same way steam, then electricity, augmented our physical skills. And it’s already happening. If you use a smartphone, you already benefit from specific AI in your life. Even if it’s simply researching a purchase, or navigating.

But speak to any airline pilot and they’ll tell you why pilotless aircraft aren’t coming any time soon. Of course they’re biaised, most pilots are pilots because of their romantic dream of flying since childhood. Of all career choices there are very few pilots who don’t want to fly.

However, they do work for organisations that would drop the cost of payroll in an instant if they could.

Image of the book Passengers
Passengers centres on a plot about distrust in technological automation

Technological automation already plays a large role in a commercial jet airliner. Fly-by-wire systems use software to translate control inputs to flight surfaces. The F16 couldn’t fly without that. (Read my father’s novel, Passengers, written in 1983 about this very technology) And there’s the autopilot, increasingly becoming more sophisticated.

But autopilots don’t replace a human pilot. Although they have reduced crews of 3-5 down to 2. Autopilots simply automate a number of manual tasks, freeing the pilots up to apply their brain elsewhere. So they may not manually turn the yoke, or adjust the throttle, but they still decide when these events need to happen, and program the system accordingly.

If you never learned to program the autopilot and other systems, you couldn’t progress as a commercial pilot.

In the same way as technology reduces our cognitive burdens, we can apply our capabilities to higher order problems. Think of a taxi driver purchasing one or more autonomous vehicles, then determining the best routes and times to grow their business. Or a nurse spending more time listening to and caring for a patient because they no longer have to read charts and invasively take BP readings across the ward.

Despite the coming disruption, if you adopt new technologies, and learn digital skills, you’ll be best placed to benefit.


Substitute Nuance For Novelty

It’s easy to get caught up in “Innovation Gestalt.” There is a drive to create something new in every endeavour, and even I’ve argued that change for change sake is imperative.

But change doesn’t always have to be about the novel. There is a story of a photographer with albums full of pictures of his front door. A friend paged through the album quizzically. “Why so many identical photographs?” she asked.

“Look again,” the photographer replied, “change is written over time.”

Sure enough, rather than skimming through the album, the friend slowed down and looked at each image in detail. This one showed rain, the other a new flower, clothing of passersby described the seasons.

Sometimes we need to consider the nuance, rather than novelty.

The Sextant And The Internet Of Things

Shooting the Sun with a Sextant
Old school navigation

Dead Reckoning

At 4am one morning in ’92 in heavy fog, I was on the helm of S/Y ‘Cape Song,’ a 52′ Yawl, heading into Table Bay Harbour. Sailing the world’s most notorious coast, with the highest number of wrecks per nautical mile. In those days we didn’t have GPS, but we did have SatNav. A passing satellite every 12 hours or so would provide a fix, which you would then use with dead reckoning and other navigational aids such as sextants and lighthouses to plot your course.

What’s memorable about this particular night, apart from it being my first yacht delivery, not to mention first sail into the most famous harbour in the world, is the results of our navigation.

We estimated that Robben Island was about a mile to starboard, our East. We could hear surf close by, but fog has a way of amplifying and diffusing sound so we weren’t too worried. A sudden gust of wind opened a hole in the mist and just 100 yards to port waves were breaking on the rocks of the old prison. Oops.

Later we spent three days drinking and laughing about that experience. At the time not so much.

GPS, And The Sextant

Almost 2 years later I was delivery crew on a 107′ wishbone ketch, S/Y ‘Sintra’, crossing the Atlantic. We had SatNav, Radar, Weather Fax, Plotters and GPS. We also still took a daily plot with a sextant, and helmed to an old school compass. Timid Virgins and all that.

Sometime soon the GPS’s in our pockets will become ever more accurate as we wire up lampposts, traffic lights, and send balloons into the stratosphere to connect the planet. Despite being a Technology Evangelist, I still believe we should learn to use a sextant.

There are three reasons I believe it’s imperative to learn traditional skills and analogue systems:

1. Amplification of Skill

Technology simply accelerates or amplifies. If you can’t do something (well), technology will enable you to accomplish it. Remove the need to find a street directory or ask for directions. If you can do something, technology amplifies that even more.

2. The Joy of Mastery

True happiness comes in mastery.

“He who can catch a fly with chopsticks can do anything.”

‘Nuff said.

3. The Zombie Apocalypse

Technology still fails. If you can’t navigate the world without needing technology you’re going to be toast when SkyNet takes over, or the undead.