Robots will be able to do almost anything, including what you do.

There seems to be a lot of talk these days about what our working future may look like. A few weeks ago I wrote about some of Faith Popcorn’s predictions. Quoting from the Popcorn slide deck,

“Work, as we know it, is dying. Careers and offices: Over. The robots are marching in, taking more and more skilled jobs. To keep humans from becoming totally obsolete, the government must intervene, incentivizing companies to keep people on the payroll. Otherwise, robots would job-eliminate them. For the class of highly-trained elite works, however, things have never been better. Maneuvering from project to project, these free-agents thrive. Employers, eager to secure their human talent, lavish them with luxurious benefits and unprecedented flexibility.  The gap between the Have’s and Have-Nots has never been wider.”

Now, I consider Popcorn to be a marketing futurist, she’s in the business to help brands. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I agree with almost all of her predictions. But she’s not the only one talking about the future of work. In a recent New York Times Sunday Book Review (forwarded to me by a colleague) Rise Of The  Robots | Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, Martin Ford pretty much agrees. According to the review, “Tasks that would seem to require a distinctively human capacity for nuance are increasingly assigned to algorithms, like the ones currently being introduced to grade essays on college exams.” Increasingly devices, like 3D printers or drones can do work that used to require a full-blown manufacturing plant or what was heretofore simply impossible. Ford’s book goes on to chronicle dozens of instances like this. The reviewer, Barbara Ehrenreich, states, “In ‘Rise of the Robots,’ Ford argues that a society based on luxury consumption by a tiny elite is not economically viable. More to the point, it is not biologically viable. Humans, unlike robots, need food, health care and the sense of usefulness often supplied by jobs or other forms of work.”

In another article in Fast Company, Gwen Moran surveys a couple of PhD’s, one from MIT and another who’s executive director of the Society of Human Resource Management. The latter, Mark Schmit agrees that there will be a disparity in the work force. “this winner/loser scenario predicts a widening wealth gap, Schmit says. Workers will need to engage in lifelong education to remain on top of how job and career trends are shifting to remain viable in an ever-changing workplace, he says.” On the other end of the spectrum some see the future as more promising. The aforementioned MIT prof, Erik Brynjolfsson, “…thinks that technology has the potential for “shared prosperity,” giving us richer lives with more leisure time and freedom to do the types of work we like to do. But that’s going to require collaboration and a unified effort among developers, workers, governments, and other stakeholders…Machines could carry out tasks while programmed intelligence could act as our “digital agents” in the creation and sharing of products and knowledge.”

I’ve been re-accessing Stuart Candy’s PhD dissertation The Futures of Everyday Life, recently and he surfaces a great quote from science fiction writer Warren Ellis which itself was surfaced through Bruce Sterling’s State of the World Address at SXSW in 2006. It is,

“[T]here’s a middle distance between the complete collapse of infrastructure and some weird geek dream of electronically knowing where all your stuff is. Between apocalyptic politics and Nerd-vana, is the human dimension. How this stuff is taken on board, by smart people, at street level. … That’s where the story lies… in this spread of possible futures, and the people, on the ground, facing them. The story has to be about people trying to steer, or condemn other people, toward one future or another, using everything in their power. That’s a big story. “1

This is relevant for design, too, the topic of last week’s blog. It all ties into the future of the future, the stuff I research and blog about.  It’s about speculation and design fiction and other things on the fringes of our thinking. The problem is that I don’t think that enough people are thinking about it. I think it is still too fringe. What do people do after they read Mark Ford? Does it change anything? In a moment of original thinking I penned the following thought, and as is usually the case subsequently heard it stated in other words by other researchers:

If we could visit the future ”in person,” how would it affect us upon our return? How vigorously would we engage our redefined present?

It is why we need more design fiction and the kind that shakes us up in the process.

Comments welcome.

1 http://www.warrenellis.com

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Design fiction for designers. Beware of hand grenades.

When the discussion shifts to design futures, as it sometimes does in my line of work, we often think of future artifacts or future scenarios about what we might make in the future as designers. There is, however, another possible discussion to be had, though it probably occurs much less frequently. That would be the future of design, the profession itself. Since my area of research is speculative futures and design fiction, it is worthy to explore the idea that design, as we know it may radically change, that the distinctive categorization between industrial designer, communications designer and interior designer may, in time, be no longer fully relevant. In this speculation, the title of “designer” or “design thinker” might someday supplant those distinctions. This might be something of a hand grenade in the design academy, but then that is what design fictions are all about: provocation. It is provocative because most design academies, while vehement supporters of collaboration are nevertheless set up to teach the disciplines separately. Take the analogy of a hinge on a pair of sunglasses. A “designer” could design the glasses without knowing precisely how the hinge would work. The common response is that, “Yes, but someone has to know how to design the hinge, hence the need for the specialist.” Of course, this is precisely why the concept of collaboration is so important in design education, just as it is in design practice. We have long preached that lone designer is dead. But that is today, and this is a speculative future. It assumes things will change. The reason we create speculative futures is so we can contemplate these changes and then we can work to shape the future rather than be surprised by it.

Part of making a design fiction is the idea of logical succession. Auger (2013) concurs: “…it is possible to craft the speculation into something more poignant, based on logical iterations of an emerging technology and tailored to the complex and subtle requirements of an identified audience.” If we don’t have this logical thread, or Auger’s “perceptual bridge” then we risk losing our audience. Here I run the risk of scaring away my audience because the idea of design becoming homogenous can be threatening, especially in the academy, so it is important that I quickly weave the logical thread. The grenade is, in fact, more logical than not, and it centers on the term collaboration. I will agree that someone, somewhere must design the hinge, or bear the expertise required to select the ideal substrate, or understand the essence of narrative storytelling, but not unlike the dead lone designer may be the expertise of the lone designer. Take for example the whole notion of open source. Essentially, open source is the deep thinking and expertise (of people like designers and engineers), that is given away free to be modified or built upon at will. With the onslaught of self-accelerated technologies (apps being the most primitive, nano machines being at the other end of the spectrum) that can take basic deep thinking and examine a dozen different permutations in a few minutes or seconds, the idea that we need to keep graduating thousands of new specialized deep thinkers seems almost naive. Is the hinge app, the universal specifier, or the visual collector that far off? How long would it take the sunglass designer to find a suitable hinge via the Internet or some already existing hinge database? If that doesn’t currently exist, come back tomorrow. In this near future scenario, our specialties will be less valuable.

My goal, once again, is that we begin to contemplate these things now rather than later. Design collaboration is very much about identifying what you don’t know and then knowing how to get it. Managing knowledge first, and then managing your subcontractors has always been at the heart of realizing great design; a building, a space, a device, a visual medium, even wicked problem-solving. It tells us who else we need at the table—especially the users themselves. Some of us have difficulty imagining a future where we have to change, but this is precisely why we create future narratives so that we can contemplate them. Within this story, the new collaboration will evolve from the physical team to the virtual team and that virtual team will include artificial as well as real-world intelligence. The new “designer” may well be the one who is most adept at navigating the crowd-sourced, open sourced, self-accelerated future: A design thinker with a degree in design thought. The only thing missing here is the some characters, some worldbuilding and a visualization of this fiction. I guess I will have put that on my to-do list.

 

James Auger (2013) Speculative design: crafting the speculation, Digital Creativity, 24:1, 11-35, DOI: 10.1080/14626268.2013.767276
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Falling asleep in the future. 

Prologues to Season 4 : : The Lighstream Chronicles : : Dreamstate

Season 4 Prologue ix-x: Backstory

Every now an then it makes sense to keep readers updated on the scientific and technological developments that were both behavioral and cultural influences in the 22nd century. This addendum could to the 2159backstory link on The LIghtstream Chronicles site.

It wasn’t until 2047 that technological manipulation of the body’s endocrine system became commonplace. Prior to that, pharmaceuticals were the primary mode of stimulating hormone production in the body, but that solution never seemed to alleviate the side effects that so often accompanied pharma-based protocols. Nevertheless, it was the the well funded pharmaceutical industry, perhaps seeing the writing-on-the-wall that helped to pioneer the chips that ultimately became the regulators that enabled precision balance of the body’s chemistry.

Implanting chips into the body was in full swing by the late 2020’s but and this often meant that the body required numerous implants to balance and regulate different processes. The chemchip as it was called in 2047 was the first handle multiple functions. Chip#5061189 (the original first device was about the size of a postage stamp and was inserted below the skin in the lumbar region of the back. From here, it was able to trigger or inhibit the adrenal glands, hypothalamus, ovaries, pancreas, parathyroid, pineal gland, pituitary gland, testes, thymus and thyroid. Programs were written and updated seamlessly to coincide with various life stages and individual preferences. These early implants had a significant affect on overall health and wellness.

Gradually however, these chips required maintenance and did not work in synergy with other chipsets that were becoming prevalent throughout the body. A series of technological developments over the next 12 to 15 years began to consolidate individual chip functions into what became known as the chipset. You can read more about how the chipset works.

 

dreamstate

Just relax, we’ll take it from here.

Of course, technology marches on, so by the 22nd century the augmented human is an extremely sophisticated combination of technology builds on a “natural” human elements. Hence, we have the sleep program. This can be anything the user wants it to be from floating weightless in an imagined, liquid, greenspace to a field of tall grass. Then, regulation of the the body chemistry can manipulate the body chemistry and trick the body into thinking it has had 8 hours of sleep in only 3. Think of how much more work you could get done.

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Technological Darwinism. Is it inevitable?

Continuing on the thread from last week. I’ve been noticing lately how many older citizens are staring at their smart phones. All my examples of older are from the 60+ generation. I saw a traffic cop the other day staring down at his iPhone, a grandmother in the grocery store, another waiting for a bus, and another paying for her Starbucks using the phone app. It wasn’t too many years ago that many older Americans washed their hands of dealing with computers, the idea of email, or doing a Google search. Now they have iPads, they’re on Facebook, and texting is commonplace. It makes me wonder where the tipping point was. When did they finally cave in?

You’ve probably guessed why I’m asking. It’s fascinating to me to see that even things that we swear up and down against, we often end up embracing in one form or another just because we will get left behind if we don’t—way behind. That not only goes for technology, but also social mores, fashion, and other cultural behaviors.

So, skipping a few years into the future, what former sensitive subjects will we have embraced? Cloning? 3+ genetic parents? Implanted chips? Ubiquitous surveillance? Augmented bodies? Genetically enhanced bodies, body parts or brains? How about turning off the biological clock and living another 100 years? Trans-species genetics? Man-boy love? Maybe public nakedness, or killing the people you hate in virtually reality. The possibilities are endless.

For example, if increased alertness is critical for certain jobs and that is attainable by a simple, painless chip implanted in the back of your neck, would you do it? Could employers require it?

If everybody is doing it will you do it, too? Perhaps you say no now, but will you eventually cave in?

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Comply! Resistance is futile.

A couple of interesting items in the news intersected for me this week. The first was Google’s announcement that it was going to down-rank web sites that are not, according to Google, mobile-friendly. They’ve built a little app  for this that lets you test whether your site is about to get dinged. Easy enough, you type in your URL, it searches through your site and then, you either get the green good, or the red bad. If you get the latter, the app tells you what you need to fix. Choosing not to fix it, means that when folks search for you or your product or service on a mobile device, you won’t be very high on the list. From a BrandChannel post this week,

“Forrester Research reports that just 38 percent of business websites are currently optimized for mobile—while 86 percent of all US smartphone users search via Google. “Businesses must improve the usability of their websites on smartphones and tablets now, or risk being buried among 177 million websites in Google search,” Forrester noted.”

So it would appear that complying with Google’s algorithms is no longer an option if you want your site to retain its ranking. This strikes me as an interesting type of forced compliance. I don’t think I would call it bullying, but maybe it’s somewhere between than and peer pressure. Based on Forrester’s research a lot of companies didn’t think it was all that important to be mobile-friendly, but according to Google, there should be a penalty for that kind of thinking and they have the power to enforce it. Oh, and by the way, you don’t get a vote in this. If you disagree or feel that the “big picture” nature of your site doesn’t translate the smart phone world you either comply or the result could impede the traffic on your site. The argument I’m sure is that a poor mobile experience is just as damaging as a lower ranking. But what about those users who are just searching and then, for a better experience decided to view it on their big screen when they get home? It might not happen, because in your new lower ranking, they might not find you at all. Resistance is futile.

The next item across my desk was a call for academic papers for a conference coming up in Osaka, Japan. The name jumped out at me: 5th International Workshop on Pervasive Eye Tracking and Mobile Eye-Based Interaction (PETMEI 2015). Investigating further was this description:

The goal of the workshop is to bring together members in the ubiquitous computing, context-aware computing, computer vision, machine learning and eye tracking community to exchange ideas and to discuss different techniques and applications for pervasive eye tracking.” 

But wait, there’s more. Here are some of the topics of interest:

– Eye tracking technologies on mobile devices

– Gaze and eye movement analysis methods

– Fusion of gaze with other modalities

– Integration of pervasive eye tracking and context-aware computing

– User studies on pervasive eye tracking

– Eye tracking for pervasive displays

– Gaze-based interaction with outdoor spaces

Apparently, there is a fairly developed need to know what we look at when we are computing or when we are on a mobile device—and maybe even when we are just gazing around and it’s pervasive!

What do these two news items have to do with each other? Directly, nothing, but putting on my Envisionist glasses I see a huge corporation exerting its will in a wave-of-influence sort of way, and I see that there are technologies that we have virtually no exposure to, that will change the way technology reacts to us and the way we react to technology. For me, it underscores how gradually we just adapt to new technologies, because we really have no choice—even though we most definitely do. The power brokers of the future will be the peddlers of all manner of “better ways” to do everything from browsing on your mobile device, to shopping, to learning, to health, to lifestyle, and so on. The proposition will be this: get better at these things or get left behind. Kind of a form of technological Darwinism, and like pervasive eye tracking, we may not even know it’s happening.

I’ll stop there… for now.

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No ordinary bed. You’ll be sleeping late.

Doctors, therapists and many other health and wellness experts are re-emphasizing the importance of sleep to our overall health and wellbeing. A solid 8 hours has been proven to prevent disease, obesity, lessen stress, increase energy and brain activity. Last year, the Washington Post ran an article on the future of sleep, listing seven areas where science and technology are working to make a good night’s sleep even better. They included, managing your dreams, the perfect sleep environment, super-naps, genetic modifications to cram more sleep into less time, wakefulness drugs (not exactly sleep), smart pajamas (the night time version of the bodysuit worn by the characters in The Lightstream Chronicles) and hyper-sleep so that you can head for Mars and not grow old.

All of this deals with the act of sleeping but what will we be sleeping on and how will we sleep. This week in The Lightstream Chronicles we take a look at a Panorama Suite in the orbiting space resort New Vega City. The bed may look conventional in many respects but there’s a lot of tech hidden in those sheets. For example the bed, while you can exactly tell from our vantage point is round, and suspended by magnetic levitation, hence hovering about 10 inches off the floor. The sheets are programmed to identify your body temperature and adjust accordingly or you can manually adjust them via your luminous implants. (If you are new to the story or the blog you might want to check out the lexicon.) The sheets can also emit pheromones to enhance sexual experiences.

No ordinary bed.

No ordinary bed.

The environment is important, too. The temperature of the room perfectly regulated, that giant panoramic picture window will dim to complete black if you choose and the floor can shift it’s haptic sensations from freshly cut grass, to warm sand, smooth stones or wet pavement—whatever floats your boat. All of the structural surfaces are active which means that anything you can see, imagine in your mind or the completely library of virtual experiences can come to life through the walls around you. And you think it’s tough to get out of bed now.

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Season 4 begins. The plot thickens.

Each week I post a blog congruent with what is happening on The Lightstream Chronicles. Sometimes it is tightly related, other times it might be a bit of a stretch. At any rate, this week we are launching Season 4, and as is customary, we are starting out the season with a bit of context that can help to situate you more comfortably in 2014. That’s a stretch, I realize, but the more you understand about this world the more you are likely to relate to the story, the characters, and the drama.

That being said, we examine the idea of a space station, or in this case a space resort, tethered to earth by no less than a space elevator. Your first thought is science fiction fantasy, but not so fast. The idea of a space elevator actually dates back to the 19th century and a good deal of speculation has been done on how this might actually happen. The critical element that makes this plausible is carbon nanotubes; super strong, super light. Do your homework (ibid).

NVCinsert

Dream on.

 

 

Hence, in 2159 we have an orbiting space resort tethered to a space elevator. Hong Kong 2, though slightly outside of the equatorial ideal zone won the bid. It turns out that mathematical calculations can render almost any location acceptable for an elevator, though Hong Kong remains the only existing site. Plans are underway for Sri Lanka and Rio de Janeiro with new space resorts.

New Vega City could be compared with a 21st century cruise ship. In fact, it was a cruise line that made the initial investment in NVC. Not unlike 21st century cruise ships, passengers choose state rooms based on the view. There are beaches, wave pools, casinos, restaurants that serve non-rep food—the options are impressive. It remains one of the few experiences that rival the V.

Hope you enjoy the next four weeks of Season 4 Prologues and the rest of Season 4.

 

 

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The Finale to Season 3.

The idea of tapping into someone’s memories has been discussed more than once over the years (like this). Remember that the medical erasure process has already been recommended for Sean since he was very badly beaten and raped. Medical erasure could wipe this from his memory and after the scars have healed there would be no trace of the trauma mentally or physically. Of course, this procedure has not taken place yet, so Keiji is able to, through the superconductivity of the regen pod, tap into some of Sean’s latent, near term memories. As we see, however, they are fairly sketchy.

If we stop to think about our own memory, it rarely plays back as a continuous movie. It’s more like quick edits of what we saw or said and almost never includes audio, yet audio can often play a major role in triggering us to remember places, people and things. It is interesting to contemplate that accessing our memories from the outside, might just include audio and more.

We shouldn’t be surprised that Keiji isn’t getting a clearer picture though he could if he could get direct physical contact with Sean. By so doing, he could, theoretically, scan right through the event in its entirety. The complication here is that there was evidence that Sean was headjacked, (another topic I have blogged about numerous times), depending on the quality of the device and the trauma involved those memories may or may not be in tact. In fact, Sean’s memory could already be a disconnected pile of snippets not unlike the event we have just witnessed. He may not even know his name.

Season 4 begins next week April 10th and it kicks off with 4 double-page spreads in the Prologues section. Interesting stuff about the world of 2159, maybe some clues, maybe some foreshadowing.

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More futurist predictions from The Lightstream Chronicles.

Last week I talked about the similarities between Faith Popcorn’s 2025 predictions and that many of these predictions were already included in The Lightstream Chronicles. Since TLSC takes place 134 years after Faith Popcorn’s predictions, a better term than predictions would probably be backstory. As I have written before, one of the reasons for choosing such a distant future is to allow for the dramatic improvements in artificial intelligence (AI). There is quite a debate on this in science fiction and in future studies: When will we break the true AI barrier? Some believe that we will leave our physical bodies behind and become one with the hive, a giant mind merger of shared thoughts and consciousness somewhere in the mid to late 21st century. Ray Kurzweil, and Martine Rothblatt would probably fall into this camp. Kurzweil believes that there is ample evidence to trust that exponential improvements in technology will make this possible. It appears as though Rothblatt is working on achieving this by what amounts to an accretion of your own data, thoughts, opinions, etc. over time producing what would be the ultimate Siri of yourself. The body it would seem is an afterthought, possibly unnecessary.

My scenarios hinge heavily on what I would call, my take on human nature. I think we like bodies. In fact, they obsess us. I can’t see us abandoning our physical selves for an enhanced neural connection to the Othernet, especially as we are on the verge of perfecting it, ridding it of disease, aging and disability. So enamored are we with bodies, we will insist that our robots be equally sleek and endowed.

And while many future predictions include a Singularity, where everything changes, an unrecognizable future ruled by AI, I think change will be more mundane. As I highlighted last week (and where Popcorn and I agree), I believe we will be heavily augmented. Here are some more:

  1. By nature of what I call endofacts, (implanted artifacts) we will become our own ultra-powerful computers. Our input output (I/O) will be built-in as in luminous implants; our user interface (UI) will be visible on our retinas.
Learning to use your new luminous implants. Click to enlarge.

Learning to use your new luminous implants.

  1. Our aging process cease with an outpatient procedure that stops telomere decay. 25-29 will be the preferred age for that.
  1. Because of the powerful transmission chips embedded in our chipset, we will be able to transmit thoughts and images from our mind or our vision to anyone, anywhere who is willing to receive it. It will be a lot like reading minds, but we will also have to invent brain-gate encryptions to keep others from hacking our thoughts. If you want to talk to me, (like a phone call) I have to give you permission.
  1. As with Popcorn, I believe that virtual reality will make physical travel less important, but I also believe it will rule the day. It will be the new drug with millions addicted to it as an escape from reality into their own programmable, perfect world. Once again, this is attributable to human nature. This, I believe, will be the biggest upheaval in the socio-techno future: the determination and separation of real from virtual.
  1. The Top City Spanner is the result of programmable architecture. It can replicate and rebuild itself based on our needs. It’s the same idea that nano technology promises but on a larger, life-size scale. The two technologies will merge.
  1. Replication is another big prediction. We will be replicating food and just about anything else by recreating its molecular structure. It will end starvation, food shortages and most farming.

There are a lot more if you drift through the pages of TLSC, which I encourage you to do.

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The future according to Popcorn and The Lightstream Chronicles.

Back in the 90’s an innovative marketing futurist/consultant by the name of Faith Popcorn created quite a stir with her book, The Popcorn Report. It was a best seller for its predictions of what we would be doing and buying at the turn of the century. I’m pretty sure she coined the phrase cocooning, back then. Some of her predictions came true and then it seems as though we didn’t hear much from Popcorn. Then, earlier this week, I stumbled on an article on the online site, Fusion. The article spun from a presentation called FutureVision:2025 that Popcorn gave earlier this year on the future of work. There are a host of new predictions, but what struck me was how many of these predictions are already part of my future in The Lightstream Chronicles. Herewith are some of the similarities:

1. Popcorn says:                                               LSC says:

Careers and offices are over.                           The majority of the work force works at home. p4 S1.

2. Virtual travel replaces actual travel              Travel greatly reduced by use of the V. p4 S1.

3. Language download to implanted chip         The chipset and implants. See the lexicon.

4. Implanted chips release body chems           Adjusting your chems. See Prologues to Season 3.

5. A robot revolution (lots of robots)                  Major premise of graphic novel is ubiquitous synthetics.

6. Robots will care for the young.                      Introducing Marie-D. See Season 2.

7. Robots and humans                                      Note the AHC logo and image from Popcorn’s deck below.

popcorn

 

8. “Always upgradable embedded chips…”       Lots on the chipset and implants. See the lexicon.

9.”Who will offer immortality insurance…”         Lexicon, p4 S1. Almost no one is getting old.

In a related slide deck, Popcorn also makes a bunch of predictions on the augmented brain. These include exchanging memories, adjusting your mood, reducing sleep time, and escaping into the virtual. Of course, all of these predictions are foundational to my story. And there are a number of slides in these decks that bear an uncanny resemblance to images from the graphic novel. Maybe great minds think alike.

Next week, I’ll highlight some of my other predictions. Speaking of thinking, what do you think?

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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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