Young Emmott: Foxgoose gives Chase

It was in comments at

that Foxgoose first revealed Emmott’s earlier claim to fame as the inventor of the internet surfing microwave oven.

He has a comment on my last post which is too good to leave there in obscurity. Here is Foxgoose’s comment in full, with a fascinating footnote by Alex Cull.

*                  *                    *

Emmott’s prime talent seems to be self promotion.

He shares with Paul Nurse and Steve Jones a desperate need to leverage his specialised narrow scientific credentials – so that he can climb onto the world stage as philosopher prince and bedazzle the scientifically clueless with bullshit.

He differs from Jones and Nurse however, in that he doesn’t appear to have had a particularly stellar scientific career in the first place.

I believe he was originally a neuroscientist who got involved in computer design at Bell Labs. He was then head hunted by NCR business machines to set up a UK research unit called “The Knowledge Lab”. It was described thus in the MIT Technology Review:-

“The Knowledge Lab boasts an eclectic mix of twenty- and thirtysomething staffers. Computer scientist works alongside technical engineer, artist, jewelry designer, graphics/industrial designer, biophysicist, mathematician, economist, psychologist and philosopher. The 25-member team’s mission is broad: focus on tomorrow’s consumer”. Or, as the Knowledge Lab’s glossy launch brochure declared: “To create foresight-to get a grasp of the future before it happens. To start to lead the way in challenging established assumptions.” Housed in a stylish open-plan studio space in central London, the lab is separated from Financial Solutions’ reception by a wall of frosted glass, perforated with portholes to give visitors a glimpse of this future.

The Knowledge Lab’s director, neuroscientist Stephen Emmott, sums up the lab’s fundamental focus within the rather loose bounds set by its parent company with two words: relationship technology. “The context for everything we do is the networked economy,” Emmott says, “and the central purpose of networks is to establish and maintain relationships.”

The relationships that interest Emmott and his lab are those between consumer and consumer and between consumer and supplier-the demands and preferences of the consumer and how the supplier serves and stimulates these demands. By exploring and exploiting these relationships, NCR hopes to find ways to reposition itself after a troubled time in the 115-year-old company’s history. And in setting up the lab, NCR has forged unusual relationships of its own, recruiting its own customers (banks) to help fund and advise the new center and even contribute their research to its projects-much as MIT’s Media Lab is funded through its relationship with technology firms. The verdict is still out on how successful this project will be. While observers express praise for the lab’s boldness, they also voice skepticism about the originality of some of its ideas. And some question whether the ultimate aim of the lab is more PR than R&D.”

I think the journalist nailed Steve & his magic microwave in the last sentence there.

Another one of Steve’s world shaking inventions was the intelligent financial cufflink:-

“Emmott’s idea of invisible computing extends well beyond the kitchen. There’s a prototype secure system enabling micro-payments and communication via either the Internet or phone using everyday objects-rings or cufflinks might serve as tokens, increasing or decreasing in monetary value when waved at a point-of-sale device or ATM”

The piece finishes with another fairly damning critique:-

“Michael Bove, head of the MIT Media Lab’s Object-Based Media Group, is one observer who has his doubts. “There have only been a handful [of technology projects] announced so far,” he notes, “and a number of these sound as if they were created to make NCR a good press release.”

Clearly Stevie baby was surfing on a tidal wave of bullshit from an early age and using his background to play the “science futurologist” to gullible business people.

It doesn’t appear that any of his futuristic notions ever made anybody any profit.

All that seems to have happened is – he’s found an even more gullible audience in the Graun reading “climate concerned arts community”.

and Alex Cull adds:

Here’s an AP news article from 1999 which has NCR’s Prof. Emmott describing an Intelligent Bin, which would scan our rubbish for RFID tags in packaging and compile a personalised shopping list (which it could then send to retailers over the internet) based on what we chuck away.

“The trash cans could be on the market within five to 10 years, but it will require the industry to move away from bar codes, Emmott said.”

Strangely, the Intelligent Bin concept doesn’t seem to have caught on, yet.

*                  *                    *

I found Emmott  doomsaying back in in 2006, in Spiked, of all places.

(Spiked-on-line is the rather good, quirky, in-yer-face Marxist news site where Ben Pile of Climate Resistance frequently writes)

His article was part of a “major survey of experts, opinion formers and interesting thinkers” its aim being “to identify some key questions facing the next generation – those born this year, who will reach the age of 18 in 2024”.

Bizarrely, Spiked carried out the survey in collaboration with Orange, who say about themselves:

“Orange is an optimistic company. Our business is about enabling people to get the most out of life: today, and in the future. Enlightening the Future 2024 asks important questions about how humanity will fulfil the promise of the future. While the views expressed in Enlightening the Future 2024 do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of Orange, we are proud to partner with spiked to create a forum for those views”.  

(Orange didn’t subsidise Emmott’s cry of despair at the Royal Court. That was financed by the European Union).

Here’s Emmott in 2006:

“I believe the greatest challenge we face for the 21st Century is the rapid changes in, and alarming loss of, Earth’s life support systems – most notably climate and biodiversity. I am not alone. Increasing scientific evidence suggests that this issue is of such fundamental importance and urgency, and so vast in its scale, that it is likely to determine whether our species, and millions of other species, will have sufficient natural systems able to support life in the 22nd Century.

“Enter science. This unprecedented challenge to all life on Earth brings a huge scientific challenge: understanding Earth’s life support systems and changes to them and finding ways to help address this problem. This will require powerful predictive computational models simply not possible today. I say this because this is the one area of science where ‘observation’ is simply not feasible. We can’t wait and observe for the next 50 years what happens to the climate and to Earth’s biodiversity because by then, we will almost certainly have crossed an irreversible tipping point with unimaginably catastrophic global consequences.

“Scientists from a wide range of disciplines – computer science, biology, earth science, ecosystem science, climatology to name but a few – must work together to build powerful, robust, predictive computational models of Earth’s life support systems and changes to these systems that will occur under given global conditions. But most important of all, they, together with the rest of the citizens of the world, will need to ensure we, and the politicians we elect, use this knowledge to ensure we have a planet able to sustain all life on Earth.”

Seven years on, Emmott and his team of a new kind of scientist have built such a model. According to Emmott in his talk at NESTA, it demonstrates that we’re doomed. According to an article in Nature co-authored by Emmott and ten others, the model doesn’t work yet. The whole article is couched in the conditional, about what it might be able to do one day.

Forecasting the future on the basis of computer models is a hazardous business. Doing so on the basis of models which haven’t been developed yet, even more so. If Emmott was working for a private enterprise, his job would be on the line.

About Geoff Chambers

Retired illustrator (children's magazines, religious education textbooks, an Encyclopaedia of Christianity, gay contact and female fitness magazines, pornographic strip cartoons etc.) Retired lecturer in English and History of Art in a French University; ardent blogger on climate hysteria, banned five times from the Guardian and twice from the Conversation. Now blogging at
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9 Responses to Young Emmott: Foxgoose gives Chase

  1. Foxgoose says:

    Have I got the “unique selling point” of the Intelligent Bin right Alex?

    Everything you chuck away – it re-orders from the retailer.

    Is it conceivable that the planet sized Emmott brain has overlooked a tiny flaw here?

    Just imagine the week of the “horsemeat lasagne” saga – how could Tesco have found enough horses to respond to the instant demand?

  2. I spot a problem, too, with the financial cuff-link; what does the well-dressed person do in the summer, when short-sleeved shirts become de rigueur ?
    Anyway, body piercings are rather more common than cuff-links these days. The intelligent navel ring sounds a better bet. And it’s at the right height for the average cash dispenser, unlike the cufflinks on my t-shirt.

  3. alexjc38 says:

    I think the Intelligent Bin’s an intriguing idea, in a “Tomorrow’s World” sort of way, and in a sense, not that different to the sort of information-gathering going on when we use loyalty cards. I remember there was also talk of connecting refrigerators to the internet, so that they could order fresh supplies of milk, etc., when these started to run low.

    However… There would be some downsides to the iBin. Someone in the article points out that RFID technology would be expensive to use in connection with inexpensive products. And I think there is a difference between using a loyalty card in a shop – something you can choose to do or not – and having a device going behind your back, as it were, to report what it’s found. Would you be given the chance to opt in/out? What happens if the iBin is registered to you but another family member – with very different tastes to you – also uses it? What happens if you find someone’s rubbish in your front garden and happen to put it in your iBin? There are probably some good reasons why the idea hasn’t caught on!

    I’d hope that it wouldn’t automatically re-order whatever it found, though – Foxgoose, as you point out, that would have dire consequences. I’m imagining a scenario like the Sorceror’s Apprentice – the faster you throw away the dodgy packs of lasagne the faster the helpful iBin and supermarket chain keep sending you more!

    On a more serious note, NCR’s Knowledge Lab could be doing useful stuff along the way, in a manner like Lockheed Martin’s “Skunk Works”. One book I read recently was “Adapt” by Tim Harford, where he makes the case for setting aside part of an organisation specifically for generating potentially useful ideas, most of which will fail but a few of which might be wild successes. So, for every hundred ideas like the Intelligent Bin, which come to nothing, there might perhaps be one or two winners which will justify the whole exercise.

  4. Ben says:

    Given Emmott’s invention, I would like to propose a new category of celebrity: the Public Bintellectual. The Public Bintellectual is someone whose ideas are rubbish, but who ideas gain momentum through their authors’ superficial membership of institutions of thinking — typically world-class universities.

    Note that many Public Bintellectuals speak through institutions within these Universities, typically sponsored by fabulously wealthy: The Smith and Martin Schools at Oxford, the Grantham Institute at LSE and Imperial, and the ones at Cambridge I’ve forgotten. These institutions seem preoccupied with the idea, sadly reflected in the Orange/Spiked survey that new, insurmountable problems face civilisation. Thus, having determined that the world is about to end through nothing more than speculation about things such as ‘the planet’s life support systems’, the Bintellectual is thrust on to the top of the circuit, as Geoff says, to ‘to leverage […] specialised narrow scientific credentials’ in the public/political sphere.

    This is an adjunct to my observation that ‘environmentalism is mediocrity’. Other people who I would put in this category are Richard Dawkins and, perhaps unfairly, the three most recent presidents of the Royal Society. (Unfair, because they may have achieved something in their own fields, but this unfairness mitigated by the fact they speak well outside their fields from positions of rank ignorance.)

    I think Geoff has a similar theory about the expansion of universities. It seems to be the case that as top universities have expanded as brands, they have had to seek greater roles for themselves, as ‘relevant’. This brings the no-longer-warranted elitism of the academy into the wider public sphere, where experts are positively begged for their support.

    Having grown up in Oxford, I saw enough of it to recognise that so much of it was ‘all fur coat and no knickers’ — it was trading on its image as an ancient place of knowledge, but that this image itself, rather than its ability to produce knowledge, was the commodity. That’s a sweeping statement, of course, and it might just be that I’m bitter that I didn’t get in. But you don’t need to get, and you don’t need a PhD, nor a chair at some billionaire’s vanity project to see that what public bintellectuals produce is crap. You just need a healthy disregard for that kind of authority.

  5. Alex
    The loyalty card takes Emmott’s idea a stage further in a way, attaching the bug to the person instead of to his dustbin.
    “So, for every hundred ideas like the Intelligent Bin, which come to nothing, there might perhaps be one or two winners which will justify the whole exercise”.
    I’m afraid Emmott’s two “winners” are the Royal Court play and the Penguin book. I’m beginning to see the point of looking into Emmott’s psychology, as Steveta suggests. We’ve all had moments when we’ve wanted the earth to open up and swallow us. If you’re a top scientist, and all you’ve contributed to human happiness is the intelligent bin, the financial cufflink, and the microwave web browser, you might well feel that the end of the world can’t come a moment too soon.
    John Gray’s review of Dorling and Emmott
    confirms my fears about how the debate is going to be conducted. According to Gray, Dorling “makes short work of Matt Ridley’s ‘rational optimism’”, but Gray finds Dorling’s book “intensely ideological”, and much prefers Emmott’s “short, highly accessible and vividly illustrated book”, describing it as “indispensable”.
    So rational optimism is off the table. The debate is between those who believe we can be persuaded (or forced) to behave sustainably, and those who don’t.

  6. Ben
    Your point about “all fur coat and no knickers” at Oxbridge is undoubtedly valid, and it’s always going to look like sour grapes coming from us redbrick types.

    On the quality of the media’s favourite intellectuals, it would be interesting to go through old newspapers and books of social history to see who were the kind of intellectuals who infested the BBC and the posh papers in earlier times. Sir Martin Rees and Lord May both got a lot of stick for being committee men rather than scientists in comments at Bishop Hill, I remember.

    My point about the expansion of the universities was rather different, though complementary, to yours. I was positing the idea that the expansion of the universities has produced a sizeable minority of people who think of themselves as “intellectuals” – concentrated in the younger age groups and in the newer professions concerned with communication rather than wealth creation – a minority large enough to function independently of the rest of society, creating their own ideology. One percent of the population measuring their carbon footprints and reading Emmott would be a sect of fruitcakes. Ten percent, and you’re talking about a niche market. And when that 10% includes a large proportion of the thinking, chattering population in the media and elsewhere, you have a movement.

    Oxford “trading on its image as an ancient place of knowledge” may well be a reaction to the existence of this expanding market. No doubt this has always happened to some extent.

    A minor example of “Oxbridge worship”: both Mark Lynas in the introduction to “Six Degrees” and George Monbiot, in articles about his new book on his experience living as a noble savage in the Welsh hills dressed only in a woolly hat and a penile sheath (sorry, I’m getting carried away with myself – as the schizophrenic said as they strapped him to the stretcher) mention that they researched their books at the Bodleian Library (or ”Bodleian”, as they call it). “It’s true, I read it in the Bodleian” sounds so much better than “It’s true – Steven Fry said so on Q.I.”

  7. Foxgoose says:

    I think I have a bit of an insight into the psychology of people like Emmott.

    In my business career, I was often in the position of having to pitch obscure technology to investors, stockbrokers, bankers and grant funders; often very clever and important folk, but with that strange British class thing of being proud of “not having a clue about scientific stuff”.

    People like that are very easily impressed with a few buzzwords and maybe a lab demonstration with a few fizzes, sparks & the odd CRT waveform. Most of us (me included) are subject to the human failings of egotism & vanity – and it’s very seductive to be the “smartest guy in the room” even on a narrow subject.

    In a small company situation – the temptation to “let the bullshit flow” is somewhat inhibited by the knowledge that the people you are bullshitting will expect to see some results in due course.

    In a large corporation/media/government context that inhibition often doesn’t exist and the PR message is all that matters.

    I’ve met a dozen Emmotts in business – they are the “blue-sky thinkers” and “technology communicators” who often rise very quickly though organisations, buoyed on a tide of self-promotion. If they’re lucky, they end up sitting in boardrooms wowing the “suits” while their junior staff toil in labs & design offices trying to make stuff that works.

    Seldom do the “technology communicators” contribute to anything of real, lasting value.

    Microsoft are a massive, bloated one trick pony who haven’t produced any real technical innovation since Gates stitched up IBM with a monopoly deal on the original Windows OS. My guess is Emmott’s lab is just a vanity PR project for them – much as his “Knowledge Lab” was for NCR in the 90s.

    Now he just happens to have stumbled upon the most gullible and bullshit receptive community on the planet – the politically anxious liberal arts folk. I bet he cant’ believe his luck – it must like Damien Hirst finding Charles Saatchi.

  8. TinyCO2 says:

    To quote Queenie from Black Adder II “when I throw stuff away I don’t want it to come back” with the proviso that I might enjoy seeing it smack some idiot in the back of the head on it’s return. I certainly don’t want bits of my clothing randomly paying for stuff, whether it’s chosen by me, my bin or the person in front of me in the queue.

    Special LOL for Alexjc38 “Sorceror’s Apprentice – the faster you throw away the dodgy packs of lasagne the faster the helpful iBin and supermarket chain keep sending you more!”

  9. NoFixedAddress says:

    The most telling comment from Emmott is from the 2006 interview where he is quoted as saying, “I believe the greatest challenge we face for the 21st Century is the rapid changes in, and alarming loss of, Earth’s life support systems – most notably climate and biodiversity. I am not alone……”

    What an existential cry from the neuroscientist…… I AM NOT ALONE

    I am looking forward to enrolling in an Oxford Course in Consensus Science.

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