Politics or Money Killed the Better Idea

In the 1960s the Beeching cuts decimated the railways in Great Britain.  The intent was that by closing 55% of stations and 30% miles of track, the then nationalised British Railways would be profitable.  Passenger travel and freight were diverted to cars and lorries.  Some investment in rail did follow, with 125 mph trains between London and the North West of England.  In the US, rail-based public transport wilted because reputedly the oil interests and the vehicle manufacturers could afford to buy out and close down the smaller individual concerns.  The long term consequences for the US is that much of the track cannot take high-speed trains.  That said, from Boston city centre to New York city centre is quicker by Acela Express than flying.

Now, half a century later, with the climate crisis decimating biodiversity, the focus is turning back to high-speed ground-based public transport.  Thameslink provides a north-south long distance route under London and Crossrail an equivalent east-west connection currently due for completion in 2021.  HS2 phase 1 aims to provide 250 mph trains between London & Birmingham.  Similar projects are underway in California.

The battle of videocassettes was not won by the technically best, but because VHS was supported by the signing-up of more films.  Few people remember that Beta-Max or V2000 were alternative formats.  This was, however, an ephemeral victory for the VHS format: DVD and Blueray took its place for physical media, and now these are being overtaken again by streaming services like Netflix providing HD quality over high-speed broadband internet.  To record broadcast programs, VHS was replaced by the high capacity hard-drives developed for computers.  Businesses built on supplying films on physical media went to the wall.  What was the Blockbuster in my local town is now a pet store.

IBM’s PS2 + Microsoft DOS + Lotus 123 spreadsheet software were once the triumvirate that led to the personal computer revolution.  Computers from IBM’s competitors were once advertised as “IBM compatible”.  IBM also tried to write their own DOS.  With the advent of Microsoft Windows, IBM developed its OS/2 platform, but that too was consigned to the history books.  Microsoft published the Office suite, with Word & Excel becoming the default standards, relegating the Lotus & Corel products to history too.  IBM tried to develop a Symphony Suite in order to avoid paying licence fees to Microsoft, but that too did not gain traction with the public, even though it was freeware.

It’s dangerous to make a prediction about IT, but the current commentary of an “Industrial Revolution 4.0” seems to me to not be all hype.  The critical combination this time looks to be:

IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) + Artificial Intelligence + BlockChain

Artificial Intelligence means different things to different people.  I assert that programmable expert systems are not the same thing: the machine has not learnt, it’s been programmed with questions and rules to handle the answers.  Facial recognition and voice command activation are artificial narrow intelligence (ANI).  Dictating the article “An Old Twist to a Current Buzz Phrase: Digital Transformation” was so fraught with difficulties such as the software selecting the correct homophone, repeatedly using ‘wait’ when I meant ‘weight’, that I’ve gone back to typing.  There’s no doubt that AI has come a long way, but there are examples that are far short of passing the Turing test.  I recently asked a chat-bot “do ewe think eye could get yew too fail thee Turing test”: the chatbot was stumped, but perhaps there should have been an expert system rule: refer any references to the Turing test to a human.  My Grammarly basic correctly identified “thee” should be “the”, but wanted to change “ewe” to “we”: perhaps five homophones in one sentence overwhelmed its context engine.

Blockchain is a technology that is largely synonymous with cryptocurrency, but these cryptocurrencies are only one implementation of blockchain.  The basic premise of blockchain is zero trust in other people but absolute trust in the blockchain.  As with Linux having different ‘distributions’ like Suse, Red Hat and Ubuntu, there are different commercial implementations of blockchain: Ethereum, Stratis and Waves.  Time will tell if there’s a ‘winner take all’ result or a space where parallel products can thrive.

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