Privacy is dead. Is the cyberpunk future already here?

This week, a brief thought to provoke thought. Surprisingly it has been 30 years since William Gibson released his groundbreaking work Neuromancer, that ushered in a decade of artistry inspired by the genre known as cyberpunk. Just a few days ago Paste Magazine ran an article, “Somebody’s Watching Me; Cyberpunk 30 Years On, and the Warnings We Didn’t Heed.” Therein, writer Brian Chidester delineates the fascinating influence of Gibson’s work on the music of the day as well as the ripples it continues to send into the present.

With my futurist, sci-fi, cyberpunk leanings, I was caught up with the observation of how much of Gibson’s, “…near-future where computer technology was woven into our DNA—where a virtual data sphere played the dominate role in the human interface,” is already here—and we didn’t notice—or as Chidester notes, “…quietly came to pass.”

The music connection is deep and profound but it is also intertwined with the events of the days and the decades to follow. From DARPA’s creation of the internet, to post-9/11 paranoia, the Patriot Act, WikiLeaks, Edward Snowden, Google, Twitter and Facebook, to the ubiquitous storage of cookies and individual user preferences (most of which are freely—even blithely—given), we, “…have, in essence, created business models that are a dream come true for the CIAs, FBIs and NSAs of the world.”

Yet perhaps more chilling than where we are, is how we got here.

“Google, Twitter and Facebook, lauded as broadening the scope of human potential, in fact, built algorithms to drive us to predictable results. Cookies store information on individual user preferences. They have, in essence, created business models that are a dream come true for the CIAs, FBIs and NSAs of the world.

Facebook has nearly a billion users, with tons of personal data on each one, proving that plenty of individuals are willing to provide private information to get something that is free and fun. Simply put: We’ve allowed ourselves to be smitten. The computer is now miniaturized, or, as Bruce Sterling predicted, ‘adorable.’ Christopher Shin, the engineer of Cellebrite, a device that aids the U.S. government in collecting information from cellular users, contends that the iPhone holds more personal information than any other device on the market.”

So if we can go from cyberpunk, science fiction, to present day future in 30 years, given the exponential growth of technology, were will be be smitten next: genetic engineering, transhumanism, synthetic biology?

Chidester concludes:

“If we stop to ask how we got here, we may look back and find the signs embedded in cyberpunk literature of 20-30 years prior. We may then wonder how we might better have heeded its warnings. But it is too late. Privacy, under the current paradigm, is essentially dead.”

What other cherished possession will be the next to fall?  Or have they all already fallen?

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Who is paying attention to the future? You’re standing in it. 

If you are familiar with this blog you can that tell that I am enamored of future tech, but at the same time my research in design fiction often is intended to provoke discussion and debate on whether these future technologies are really as wonderful as they are painted to be. Recently, I stumbled across a 2012 article from the Atlantic.com (recommended) magazine (Hessel and Goodman) that painted a potentially alarming picture of the future of biotech or synthetic biology, known as synbio. The article is lengthy, and their two-year-old predictions have already been surpassed, but it first reminds us of how technology, historically and currently, builds not in a linear progression, but exponentially like Moore’s Law. This is an oft quoted precept of Ray Kurzweil, chief futurist for Google and all around genius guy, for the reason that we are avalanching toward the Singularity. The logic of exponential growth in technology is pretty much undeniable at this point.

Hessel and Goodman take us through a bit of verbal design fiction where in the very near future it will be possible to create new DNA mathematically, to create new strains of bacteria, and new forms of life for good and for not so good. The article also underscores for me how technology is expanding beyond any hope of regulatory control, ethical considerations or legal ramifications. No one has time to consider the abuse of “good technology” or the unintended consequences that inevitably follow from any new idea.  If you are one of those people who, in an attempt to get through all the things you have to read by taking in only the intro and the conclusion. Here is a good take away from the article:

“The historical trend is clear: Whenever novel technologies enter the market, illegitimate uses quickly follow legitimate ones. A black market soon appears. Thus, just as criminals and terrorists have exploited many other forms of technology, they will surely soon turn to synthetic biology, the latest digital frontier.”

If you want to know how they dare make that assertion you will have to read the article and it is not a stretch. The unintended consequences are staggering to say the least.

Of course, these authors are only dealing with one of dozens if not hundreds of new technologies that because of the exponential rate of advancement are hanging over us like a canopy filling with water. Sooner or later, preferably sooner, we will —all of us—demand to bring these ideas into collaborative discussion.

In addition to my research, I write fiction. Call it science fiction or design fiction. It doesn’t matter to me. As dystopic as The Lightstream Chronicles may seem to my readers, in many ways I think that humanity will be lucky to live that long—unless we get a handle on what we’re doing now.

Some links for the incredulous:

http://www.genome.gov/sequencingcosts/

http://www.genewiz.com/index.aspx

http://mashable.com/2013/05/15/personal-genetics-resources/

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A taste of future-tech in the graphic novel.

If you are a regular to The Lightstream Chronicles, then you know that what you see on the Web is only a fraction of the detail that is available from the high-resolution PDF that accompanies each page. This week I thought I would highlight a few examples of plausible future tech that have occurred on recent pages.

The coffee

Just your average beverage replicator

Just your average beverage replicator

For example, soon after Kristin and Keiji entered her office back on page 93 Kristin offers Keiji coffee. There’s no Keurig in the office—at least not one that we would recognize—but there is a beverage replicator similar to the one that Marie used back on page 80 when she whipped up a Cabernet for Kristin. The beverage replicator, in this case, the same one that Marie used, a Maitre-deux™ kitchen food and beverage replicator. Model FVX-GNN42H71000.

Kristin “taps” in her favorite blend and delivers a freshly brewed cup of coffee including the cup. Since the flavor configuration can vary as well, Kristin prefers a French Press style at a precise 92.6 C. 325.309 ml. If you look closely into the background of page 93 you can see her making her selections.

The cups

A nanotherm cup.

A nanotherm cup.

The coffee cups that Kristin dispenses to hold a precise 325.309 ml. and are replicated bone china with a nanothermic structure that keeps the contents steaming hot—indefinitely—or until the liquid evaporates. That’s why you’ll catch a whiff of steam throughout this scene.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The desk & tablet

A simple intermediary.

A simple intermediary.

Kristin’s desk is an active surface. In other words it is able to transmit, receive and display (or project) information from any other active surface including the luminous implants that both Keiji-T and Kristin have embedded into their fingertips. (Everyone else in the world has them, too.)

The thin glass tablet that Keiji is “porting” to is simply an intermediate storage device that Kristin then transfers to her desk surface and, ultimately to holographic projection above her desk. The tablet can also store vast amounts of data for later access.

Just a sampling of some of the details in the background—a lot like the design and technology we take for granted everyday.

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What does it mean to be human?

Earlier this week, just a couple of days after last weeks blog on robophobia, the MIT Technology Review (online) published an interview with AI futurist Martine Rothblatt. In a nutshell Ms. Rothblatt believes that conscious machines are inevitable, that evolution is no longer a theory but reality, that treating virtual beings differently than humans is tantamount to black slavery in the 19th century, and that the FDA should monitor and approve whatever hardware or software “effectively creates human consciousness.” Her core premise is something that I have covered in the blog before, and while I could spend the next few paragraphs debating some of these questionable assertions, it seems to me more interesting to ponder the fact that this discussion is going on at all.

I can find one point, that artificial consciousness is more or less inevitable, on which I agree with Rothblatt. What the article underscores is the inevitability that, “technology moves faster than politics, moves faster than policy, and often faster than ethics”1. Scarier yet is the idea that the FDA, (the people who approved bovine growth hormone) would be in charge of determining the effective states of consciousness.

All of this points to the fact that technology and science are on the cusp of a few hundred potentially life changing breakthroughs and there are days when, aside from Martine Rothblatt, no one seems to be paying attention. We need more minds and more disciplines in the discussion now so that as Rothblatt says, we don’t “…spend hundreds of years trying to dig ourselves out.” It’s that, or this will be just another example of the folly of our shortsightedness.

1.Wood, David. “The Naked Future — A World That Anticipates Your Every Move.” YouTube. YouTube, 15 Dec. 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2014.

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Social discrimination—against robots. Is it possible?

As we know if you follow the blog, The LIghtstream Chronicles is set in the year is 2159. Watching the current state of technology, the date has become increasingly uncomfortable. As I have blogged previously, this is a date that I chose primarily to justify the creation of a completely synthetic human brain capable of critical thinking, learning, logic, self-awareness and the full range of emotions. The only missing link would be a soul. Yet the more I see the exponential rate of technological advancement, the more I think we will arrive at this point probably 50 to 60 years sooner than that. Well, at least I won’t have to endure the critiques of how wrong I was.

As the story has shown, the level of artificial intelligence is quite literally, with the exception of a soul, Almost Human. (A term I coined at least two years before the television series of the same name). The social dilemma is whether we should treat them as human, with their human emotions and intelligence, are they entitled to the same rights as their human counterparts (that are nearly synthetic)? Do we have the right to make them do what we would not ask a human to do? Do we have the right to turn them off when we are finished with them? I wrote more about this in a blog some 50 pages ago regarding page 53 of Season 2.

Societally, though most have embraced the technology, convenience and companionship that synthetic humans provide, there is a segment that is not as impressed. They cite the extensive use of synths for crime and perversion and what many consider the disappearance of human to human contact. The pro-synthetic majority have branded them robophobes.

As the next series of episodes evolve we will see a pithy discussion between the human Kristin Broulliard and the synthetic Keiji-T. In many respects, Keiji is the superior intellect with capabilities and protocols that far exceed even the most enhanced humans. Indeed, there is an air of tension. Is she jealous? Does she feel threatened? Will she hold her own?

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Will computers be able to read your mind? Uh, yes.

As we see on Page 92 of The Lightstream Chronicles, synthetic human Keiji-T casts a sidelong glance at Detective Guren with a sort of, “What’s his problem?” look. But, in fact, there is really little question. This far into the future, what we know as the computer, will be ubiquitous computing—something that is embedded in the walls, the door handles, your coffee cup and your bodysuit. In other words, everything will have some level of monitoring, transmission or computing power already in the make up of the device.

For example: the walls of your apartment are active surfaces, they can become visual representations of whatever you are thinking, any transmissions you are receiving or constructs that you wish to create. Hence, if you want your office environment to be a courtyard in a small Tuscan village then the walls will comply, fixtures, tables or any other device can comply with the illusion. The data being transmitted to your mind will trigger sensations of air temperature, wind, olfactory cues (like olive trees), and sounds like children playing in the distance, or music from an upstairs room across the street. When you pick up a stylus or touch an interface, you also become part of the network. Literally everything is part of the mesh.

Rewind to the present day. How could this happen you may think, but think again. In your pocket or on your desk is probably a smart phone. On this phone is stored the meta data on everywhere you have been since you owned it. This is courtesy of something called location services, which is probably in the ON position for numerous apps. This data, when matched with the day and time projects a pattern of activity; where you are on Tuesdays at 8:00 AM, who you call on your way home from work, when you text, from where, and to whom.

When it comes to your preferences, your smart phone can tell what sites you visit (your interests), when you visit them (behavioral timing), and the intensity of your interest (time allotted). If you are interacting with others, their data overlaps with yours. If you are not actually interacting, your contact list is a perfect tool for cross referencing. Now the data has tangents. Already we have enough information to predict where you are on Tuesdays, and who you are likely to be with. If you have recently used your smart phone to debit a venti red-eye, we can determine if you are caffeinated. If you have purchased two, then your friend is likely caffeinated as well. And that just scratches the surface.

Fast forward a hundred years or so and this sort of technology would be considered primitive. In an instant, a minor chip embedded in our brain could analyze all the public domain data on anyone we meet and make an assessment of their intentions.

So as Keiji-T gives Detective Guren the look, it’s safe to say he knows exactly what he’s thinking.

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Synthetic emotions? Sounds like science fiction but it’s not.

If you think the idea of feeling, emotive synthetic humans is pure science fiction fantasy, well, you’re wrong.

As we see on page 91 of The Lightstream Chronicles, Toei-N is quite in a lather about having met Chancellor Zhang in person. Not surprising; she is probably the most famous, if not the most important person in the world in 2159. The figurehead of the largest nation on the planet she oversees the governing influences of billions of people. An emotional response is consistent so I can see why someone might be just a bit nervous about meeting her, especially unexpectedly. But, let’s not forget that Toei-N is an N-Class synthetic—not human. Typical science fiction you might think, but you might want to think again.

If it was purely the stuff of sci-fi, then you might not see quite so many scholars with it on their Google Alerts. For example, there is the International Journal of Synthetic Emotions. Published semi-annually, the IJSE describes itself thus:

The International Journal of Synthetic Emotions (IJSE) covers the main issues relevant to the generation, expression, and use of synthetic emotions in agents, robots, systems, and devices. Providing unique, interdisciplinary research from across the globe, this journal covers a wide range of topics such as emotion recognition, sociable robotics, and emotion-based control systems useful to field practitioners, researchers, and academicians.

Tooling around Amazon, you could stumble upon the Handbook of Research on Synthetic Emotions and Sociable Robotics: New Applications in Affective Computing and Artificial Intelligence, by Jordi Vallverdu.

The technology that we often dismiss as science fiction is progressively becoming less so,  and though it may not be developed to the extent that we see in The Lightstream Chronicles, it’s fair to say that it just a matter of time.

When futurist, inventor and singularity forecaster Ray Kurzweil reviewed the Spike Jonze film, Her, he placed the reasonable plausibility of the Samantha character at 2029, “when the leap to human level AI would be reasonably believable.” Of course, in the movie, Samantha does not have a body such as Toei but Kurzweil says this is a minor detail. “The idea that AIs will not have bodies is a misconception. If she can have a voice, she can have a body. ” Kurzweil is also a proponent of the idea that technology develops exponentially not in any kind of linear fashion. ” If human-level AI is feasible around 2029, it will, according to my law of accelerating returns, be roughly doubling in capability each year.”1

His theory is hard to argue with and the smart phone is my perennial example. The Motorola Razr was developed in 2003. In just eleven years the iPhone 6 is a thousand times more powerful, and if we buy the exponential theory, that should double in just a couple of years. Have you seen the Apple Watch?

 

The Motorola Rasr. 700 bucks in 2003.

The Motorola Rasr. 700 bucks in 2003.

1.http://www.kurzweilai.net/a-review-of-her-by-ray-kurzweil
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Is The Lightstream Chronicles awash with gender stereotypes?

When we look at speculative futures, the tendency can be to focus on the technologies and futuristic designs. But technology and design send out ripples beyond their form and function and have an undeniable impact on culture and behavior.

Early on in my character design for The Lightstream Chronicles a colleague mentioned that she was offended by my depiction of women. I was a bit shell-shocked at the time so I didn’t delve into her rationale. In hindsight however, though I disagree, I can understand her point. You have to realize that, at that time, early in character development, Marie_D, Kristin’s domestic synth had a more developed chest and noticeable nipples—sans clothing. This characterization of Marie, actually caught quite a bit of flack. In my mind, however, my intent was anything but the sexualization of my female characters, rather it was motivated by the storyline, that visible, near-nakedness is something taken for granted in the 22nd century. Nevertheless, I reluctantly re-designed Marie to have a pronounced chest, yet without articulated breasts and minus the nipples. I must admit, I like this better for the domestic model.

My rationale for any imagery that may be read as over-sexualized is something I have written about before. Namely, that just as 100 years ago we would be shocked by the thong and bikini, we are equally taken aback at the thought that in another 100 or so years clothing may be a thing of the past. In my story, thin, vacuum sealed second-skins, wrap all the characters in a bio-aware cocoon and any protruding curves, bulges or contours are part of the package, so to speak. While it may cause some base titillation for the various sexes in that day and age, it is no more so than similarly provocative clothing works today. And with genetic tech that enables every human to have the body of their dreams, these contours are deliberate fashion statements. So it remains part of the story line.

As far as whether it is sexist or these are gender stereotypes. An online dictionary will quickly produce this definition:

sexism
noun
1.
attitudes or behavior based on traditional stereotypes of sexual roles.

2.
discrimination or devaluation based on a person’s sex, as in restricted job opportunities; especially, such discrimination directed against women.”

Two characteristics seem to emerge. First there is “attitudes or behaviors”, and the second is “discrimination or devaluation…especially such discrimination directed against women.”

Here I can confidently say that none of the above apply. First, there is no discrimination based on sex or devaluation for that matter. Kristin, our major female character is clearly in charge. She is a strong, single mother who does not rely on males for validation, nor on or her body in any kind of overtly sexual role. It is arguable that Kristin is in fact more dominant that her male counter parts, (aside from Col. Chen’s gratuitous bullying by virtue of his powerful position). Futhermore, in The Lightstream Chronicles, both women and men are visualized in the same way.

This is more of a commentary on steadily changing social mores than on any kind of gender stereotyping.

I have often thought that the true state of affairs in 150 years might be so unrecognizable that readers would find it too provocative or unsettling. So if things continue to heat up in The Lightstream Chronicles, don’t be too surprised. At the same time consider that it could actually be much worse.

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The future: Soon to be evenly distributed.

One of the great debunking websites is something called the Quote Investigator. The site is characterized by excellent research, thorough citations and lot of interesting tidbits especially about quotes we think we know. It has been a couple of years since I saved this one, but it strikes me as especially relevant with a spate of the most recent news releases on wearable technology (spawned by the Apple Watch), and lots of tech reports on telepathic breakthroughs. Consensus, it would seem is that what Gibson actually said (though as QI states, it wasn’t always said in the same way) was,

“The future has arrived — it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”

Which is to say much of what we attribute to science fiction future, at least the near and not too far out fiction futures has probably already been done to some extent.

Also from QI:

“In July 1996 the Washington Post published a story discussing research on wearable computer systems. In the mid-1990s systems using bulky visors and head-mounted video cameras resulted in a Borg-like appearance. The journalist John Schwartz deployed an entertaining variant of the adage under investigation ’The future is already here, it’s just in beta testing, the high-tech world’s final smoothing-out of kinks before products and services go public.‘”1

So images like this TIME cover animation are very sci-fi in appearance but they are also right around the corner. As the cover says,

“The Apple Watch is just the start. How wearable tech will change your life—like it or not”.2

tumblr_nbp4x1ff0s1qcy1c2o1_r1_500

Time cover, whether you like it or not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In my Copenhagen presentation earlier this year, I called this Technological Darwinism—the idea that technology will change our lives and we are powerless to stop it. Adapt or die.

The same QI article further surrounds the quotation with another Gibson remark from a USA Today Article in 1993,

“I’m not trying to predict the future. I’m trying to let us see the present.” (Ibid.)

This, as I have often stated, is also a prime rationale for design fiction. The other albeit a bit more difficult to achieve, is best said by Resnick,

“Scenarios work to enable agency in those who experience them by showing the breadth of possible futures and the inevitability of none.”3

So I will wrap this up by quoting my own quotes from the same Copenhagen paper,

And while society is in desperate need for a host of technological advancements,  Evan Selinger of RIT reminds us that, “technology moves faster than politics, moves faster than policy, and often faster than ethics” 4

According to Allenby and Sarewitz

“… as technological evolution continues to outpace the grasp of human intent, we have little time to waste. These are the questions of our time…”5

1 http://quoteinvestigator.com/category/william-gibson/
2 http://timemagazine.tumblr.com/post/97149637119/times-new-cover-never-offline-the-apple-watch
3 Resnick, Jonathan. “Materialization of the Speculative in Foresight and Design.” Thesis. OCAD-Ontario College of Art and Design, 2011. OCAD-Ontario College of Art and Design, Dec. 2011. Web. 2012.
4 Wood, David. “The Naked Future — A World That Anticipates Your Every Move.” YouTube. YouTube, 15 Dec. 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2014.
5 Allenby, Braden R., and Daniel R. Sarewitz. The Techno-human Condition. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2011. Print.
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Speculating on the future. How do we know?

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary describes a futurist as:

“one who studies and predicts the future especially on the basis of current trends”1 (emphasis mine).1

According to the Society of Professional Futurists,

“A professional futurist is a person who studies the future in order to help people understand, anticipate, prepare for and gain advantage from coming changes.  It is not the goal of a futurist to predict what will happen in the future.  The futurist uses foresight to describe what could happen in the future and, in some cases, what should happen in the future.”2

Their definition expressly denies any attempt at prediction. Embedded in that definition is the term foresight. Voros, in his paper, A Primer on Futures studies, Foresight and the Use of Scenarios, seems to agree.

“Futures (or foresight) work is not, contrary to popular misconception, about prediction or crystalball gazing and trying to guess what “the future” will be. Serious futurists are not in the business of prediction.”3

When I presented my paper Design Fiction as a Means of Provoking Individual Foresight and Participation in Today’s Decision Making, at Loncon3, The World Science Fiction Convention Academic Programme last month, a question arose from the audience suggesting that The Lightstream Chronicles was speculating on “so much”, such that how could I know?

At the time I thought the questioner was inquiring as to my methodology for speculating about future events on such a broad, world-building scale. I started a nutshell explanation of how I built the foundation of the world in 2159, but before I could get very far our time ended (as these things run like a clock). I hoped to carry on the conversation afterward one-on-one, but alas the questioner disappeared,

Thinking about it afterward, either he came in late and missed the point or I did. The point of The Lightstream Chronicles is not to predict the future, but to get us thinking and to provoke discussion and debate about it—today. In this regard, my story about how design and technology blend seamlessly with culture influencing behavior and humanity, shares its intent with Paul Saffo’s definition of foresight: “The goal of forecasting is not to predict the future but to tell you what you need to know to take meaningful action in the present.”4

So the answer is, we don’t know.  At the same time there is a rationale for all of this speculation. Here, I turn to Voros’ “Three ‘Laws’ of Futures” :

The future is not determined.

The future is not predictable.

Future outcomes can be influenced by our choices in the present. 3

And that is the point.

 

 

1. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/futurist

2. http://www.profuturists.org/futurists

3. Dr Joseph Voros, Swinburne University of Technology, Foresight Bulletin, No 6, December 2001, Swinburne University of Technology.

4. Saffo, Paul. “Six Rules For Effective Forecasting. (Cover Story).” Harvard Business Review 85.7/8 (2007): 122-131. Business Source Complete. Web. 4 Mar. 2014.

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About the Envisionist

Scott Denison is an accomplished visual, brand, interior, and set designer. He is currently Assistant Professor of Design Foundations at The Ohio State University. He continues his research in epic design that examines the design-culture relationship within a future narrative — a graphic novel / web comic. The web comic posts weekly updates at: http://thelightstreamchronicles.com. Artist's commentary is also posted here in conjunction with each new comic page. The author's professional portfolio can be found at: http://scottdenison.com There is also a cyberpunk tumblr site at: http://lghtstrm.tumblr.com
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