Behind the scenes, The Lightstream Chronicles Episode 136

Episode 136

Clearly,  the Techman is out cold, probably has a whopping headache and some tingling extremities. No problem. Keiji-T has equipment for this. Rubbing his fingertips together, Keiji-T can emit a chemical odor akin to our current day smelling salts. Aromatherapy from the fingertips, however, is a standard feature built into most synths. As we saw back in season 3, Keiji was bragging about the various scents he could conjure up.

In 2159, pheromone implants are also a common human augmentation. A quick trip to the infusion store and you can pick up a nano-endocrine emitter (NEET) that you apply to the skin and it absorbs through the pores. The emitter synchs with your master chipset and can generate or regulate certain hormonal activity.  The most popular varieties are either axillary steroids or aliphatic acids that act as a potent attraction to the opposite sex or as enhancements to intimacy. There are many other options available including repellent scents, stimulants, and relaxants. They are also an optional feature for the enormously popular fingertip implants (luminous implants) that nearly everyone has. This option, however, is not available on earlier fingertip models like one’s that Techman uses.

You can read more about a host of 2159 technologies and augmentations by visiting the glossary part 1 or part 2.

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Why Kurzweil is probably right.


Some people tell me that I am a pessimist when it comes to technology. Maybe, but part of my job is troubleshooting the future before the future requires troubleshooting. As I have said many times before, I think there are some amazing technologies out there that sound promising and exciting. One that caught my attention this week is the voice interface operating system. If you saw the film Her,  then you know of that which I speak. For many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, it has been the Holy Grail for some time. A recent WIRED magazine article by David Pierce highlights some of the advancements that are on the cusp of being part of our everyday lives.

Pierce tells how in 1979 during a visit to Xerox PARC, Steve Jobs was blown away by something called a graphic user interface (GUI). Instantly, Jobs knew that the point, click and drag interface was for the masses.

One of the scientists in that Xerox PARC group was a guy named Ron Kaplan who tells Pierce that, “‘The GUI has topped out,’ Kaplan says. ‘It’s so overloaded now.’”

I guess I can relate. Certainly it is a challenge to remember the obscure keyboard commands for every program that you use. One of my mainstays, Autodesk Maya, has so many keyboard options that there is a whole separate interface of hotkeys and menus accessed by (another) keyboard command. Rarely, except for the basics like cut, paste, and delete are these commands or menus the same between software.

If there were a voice interface that could navigate these for you, (perhaps only when you’re stumped), it would be a great addition. But the digital entrepreneurs racing in this direction, according to Pierce are going much further. They are looking, “to create the best voice-based artificial-intelligence assistant in the world.”

The article mentions one such app called Hound. It not only answers questions faster than Siri but with remarkably less overt information. For example, you could ask two different questions about two different places and then ask, “How many miles between those two?”  It reads between the lines and fills in the gaps. If it could see, I’m guessing it could read a graphic novel and know what’s going on.

Apparently there are quite a few well-funded efforts racing in this direction.  As Pierce says,

“It’s a classic story of technological convergence: Advances in processing power, speech recognition, mobile connectivity, cloud computing, and neural networks have all surged to a critical mass at roughly the same time. These tools are finally good enough, cheap enough, and accessible enough to make the conversational interface real—and ubiquitous.”

That’s just one of the reasons why I think Kurzweil is probably right in his Law of Accelerating Returns. (You can read about it on Kurzweil’s site of read a previous blog – one of many). Convergence is the way technology leaps forward. Supporting technologies enable formerly impossible things to become suddenly possible.

Pierce goes on to talk about a gadget called Alexa, which is now a device known as  Amazon Echo, which uses something called Alexa Voice Service. The Echo is a, a black tube with flashing blue LEDs designed to sit in some central location in your space. There, it answers questions and assists in your everyday life. Pierce got to live with the beta version.

“In just the seven months between its initial beta launch and its public release in 2015, Alexa went from cute but infuriating to genuinely, consistently useful. I got to know it, and it got to know me… This gets at a deeper truth about conversational tech: You only discover its capabilities in the course of a personal relationship with it.”

Hence, part of developer’s challenge is making an engaging, likable, and maybe even charming assistant.

But Pierce closes the article with realization that such an agent is

“…only fully useful when it’s everywhere when it can get to know you in multiple contexts—learning your habits, your likes and dislikes, your routine and schedule. The way to get there is to have your AI colonize as many apps and devices as possible.”

So, this technology is coming and probably nearly here. It may well be remarkable and rewarding. I wouldn’t be doing my job, however if I didn’t ask about the emanating ripples and behaviors that will inevitably grow up around it. What will we give up? What will we lose before we realize it is gone? It is marvelous, but like it’s smart-phone cousin (or grandparent), it will change us. As we rush to embrace this, as we most likely will, we should think about this, too.


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A paralyzing electro magnetic laser: future possibility or sheer fantasy?

In episode 134, the Techman is paralyzed, lifted off the ground and thumped back to the floor. Whether it’s electrostatic, electromagnetic or superconductor electricity reduced to a hand-held device, the concept seems valid, especially 144 years from now. Part of my challenge is to make this design fiction logical by pulling threads of current research and technology to extrapolate possible futures. Mind you, it’s not a prediction, but a possibility. Here is my thinking:

Keiji’s weapon assumes that at least four technologies come together sometime in the next 14 decades. Safe bet? To start with the beam has to penetrate the door and significantly stun the subject. This idea is not that far-fetched. Weapons like this are already on the drawing board. For instance, the military is currently working on something called laser-guided directed-energy weapons. They work like “artificial lightning” to disable human targets. According to Defense Update,

Laser-Induced Plasma Channel (LIPC) technology was developed by Ionatron to channel electrical energy through the air at the target. The interaction of the air and laser light at specific wavelength, causes light to break into filaments, which form a plasma channel that conducts the energy like a virtual wire. This technology can be adjusted for non-lethal or lethal use. “

The imaginative leap here is that the beam can penetrate the wall to find it’s target. Given the other advancements, I feel reasonably safe stretching on this one.

LIPC at work.

LIPC at work.

Next, you have to get the subject off the ground. Lifting a 200-pound human would require at least two technologies assisted by a third. First is a levitating superconductor. A levitating superconductor uses electric current from a superconductor to produce magnetic forces that could counter the force of gravity. According to

“Like frogs, humans are about two-thirds water, so if you had a big enough Bitter electromagnet, there’s no reason why a human couldn’t be levitated diamagnetically. None of the frogs that have taken part in the diamagnetic levitation experiments have experienced any adverse effects, which bodes well for any future human guinea pigs.”

The other ingredient is a highly powerful magnet. If we had a superconductor with a few decades of refinement and miniaturization, it’s conceivable that it could produce magnetic forces counter to the force of gravity. 1

The final component would be the power source small enough to fit inside the weapon and carrying enough juice to generate the plasma, and magnetic field for at least fifteen seconds. Today, you can buy a million-volt stun device on for around $50 and thyristor semiconductor technology could help ramp up the power surge necessary to sustain the arc.  Obviously, I’m not an engineer, but if you are, please feel free to chime in.


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What could happen.

1.  about last week

I’ll be the first to acknowledge that my blog last week was a bit depressing. However, if I thought, the situation was hopeless, I wouldn’t be doing this in the first place. I believe we have to acknowledge our uncanny ability to foul things up and, as best we can, design the gates and barriers into new technology to help prevent its abuse. And even though it may seem that way sometimes, I am not a technology pessimist or purely dystopian futurist. In truth, I’m tremendously excited about a plethora of new technologies and what they promise for the future.

2.  see the future

Also last week (by way of Dr. Michio Kaku spoke in Singapore served up this future within the next 50 years.

“Imagine buying things just by blinking. Imagine doctors making an artificial heart for you within 20 hours. Imagine a world where garbage costs more than computer chips.”

Personally, I believe he’s too conservative. I see it happening much sooner. Kaku is a one of a handful of famous futurists, and his “predictions” have a lot of science behind them. So who am I to argue with him? He’s a brilliant scientist, prolific author, and educator. Most futurists or forecasters will be the first to tell you that their futures are not predictions but rather possible futures. According to forecaster Paul Saffo, “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.”1

According to Saffo “… little is certain, nothing is preordained, and what we do in the present affects how events unfold, often in significant, unexpected ways.”

Though my work is design fiction, I agree with Saffo. We both look at the future the same way. The objective behind my fictions is to jar us into thinking about the future so that it doesn’t surprise us. The more that our global citizenry thinks about the future and how it may impact them, the more likely that they will get involved. At least that is my hope. Hence, it is why I look for design fictions that will break out of the academy or the gallery show and seep into popular culture. The future needs to be an inclusive conversation.

Of course, the future is a broad topic: it impacts everything and everyone. So much of what we take for granted today could be entirely different—possibly even unrecognizable—tomorrow. Food, medicine, commerce, communication, privacy, security, entertainment, transportation, education, and jobs are just a few of the enormously important areas for potentially radical change. Saffo and Kaku don’t know what the future will bring any more than I do. We just look at what it could bring. I tend to approach it from the perspective of “What could go wrong?” Others take a more balanced view, and some look only at the positives. It is these perspectives that create the dialog and debate, which is what they are supposed to do. We also have to be careful that we don’t see these opinions as fact. Ray Kurzweil sees the equivalent of 20,000 years of change packed into the 21st century. Kaku (from the article mentioned above) sees computers being relegated to the

“‘dull, dangerous and dirty’ jobs that are repetitive, such as punching in data, assembling cars and any activity involving middlemen who do not contribute insights, analyses or gossip.’ To be employable, he stresses, you now have to excel in two areas: common sense and pattern recognition. Professionals such as doctors, lawyers and engineers who make value judgments will continue to thrive, as will gardeners, policemen, construction workers and garbage collectors.”

Looks like Michio and I disagree again. The whole idea behind artificial intelligence is in the area of predictive algorithms that use big data to learn. Machine learning programs detect patterns in data and adjust program actions accordingly.2 The idea of diagnosing illnesses, advising humans on potential human behaviors,  analyzing soil, site conditions and limitations, or even collecting trash are will within the realm of artificial intelligence. I see these jobs every bit as vulnerable as those of assembly line workers.

That, of course, is all part of the discussion—that we need to have.


1 Harvard Business Review | July–August 2007 |
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The ultimate wild card.


One of the things that futurists do when they imagine what might happen down the road is to factor in the wild card. Short of the sports or movie references a wild card is defined by as: “… of, being, or including an unpredictable or unproven element, person, item, etc.” One might use this term to say, “Barring a wild card event like a meteor strike, global thermonuclear war, or a massive earthquake, we can expect Earth’s population to grow by (x) percent.”

The thing about wild card events is that they do happen. 9/11 could be considered a wild card. Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Katrina would also fall into this category. At the core, they are unpredictable, and their effects are widespread. There are think tanks that work on the probabilities of these occurrences and then play with scenarios for addressing them.

I’m not sure what to call something that would be entirely predictable but that we still choose to ignore. Here I will go with a quote:

“The depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but at the same time the most intellectually resisted fact.”

― Malcolm Muggeridge

Some will discount this automatically because the depravity of man refers to the Christian theology that without God, our nature is hopeless. Or as Jeremiah would say, our heart is “deceitful and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9).

If you don’t believe in that, then maybe you are willing to accept a more secular notion that man can be desperately stupid. To me, humanity’s uncanny ability to foul things up is the recurring (not-so) wild card. It makes all new science as much a potential disaster as it might be a panacea. We don’t consider it often enough. If we look back through my previous blogs from Transhumanism to genetic design, this threat looms large. You can call me a pessimist if you want, but the video link below stands as a perfect example of my point. It is a compilation of all the nuclear tests, atmospheric, underground, and underwater, since 1945. Some of you might think that after a few tests and the big bombs during WWII we decided to keep a lid on the insanity. Nope.

If you can watch the whole thing without sinking into total depression and reaching for the Clorox, you’re stronger than I am. And, sadly it continues. We might ask how we have survived this long.

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Enter the flaw.


I promised a drone update this week, but by now, it is probably already old news. It is a safe bet there are probably a few thousand more drones than last week. Hence, I’m going to shift to a topic that I think is moving even faster than our clogged airspace.

And now for an AI update. I’ve blogged previously about Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns, but the evidence is mounting every day that he’s probably right.  The rate at which artificial intelligence is advancing is beginning to match nicely with his curve. A recent article on the Txchnologist website demonstrates how an AI system called Kulitta, is composing jazz, classical, new age and eclectic mixes that are difficult to tell from human compositions. You can listen to an example here. Not bad actually. Sophisticated AI creations like this underscore the realization that we can no longer think of robotics as the clunky mechanized brutes. AI can create. Even though it’s studying an archive of man-made creations the resulting work is unique.

First it learns from a corpus of existing compositions. Then it generates an abstract musical structure. Next it populates this structure with chords. Finally, it massages the structure and notes into a specific musical framework. In just a few seconds, out pops a musical piece that nobody has ever heard before.

The creator of Kulitta, Donya Quick says that this will not put composers out of a job, it will help them do their job better. She doesn’t say how exactly.

If even trained ears can’t always tell the difference, what does that mean for the masses? When we can load the “universal composer” app onto our phone and have a symphony written for ourselves, how will this serve the interests of musicians and authors?

The article continues:

Kulitta joins a growing list of programs that can produce artistic works. Such projects have reached a critical mass–last month Dartmouth College computational scientists announced they would hold a series of contests. They have put a call out seeking artificial intelligence algorithms that produce “human-quality” short stories, sonnets and dance music. These will be pitted against compositions made by humans to see if people can tell the difference.

The larger question to me is this: “When it all sounds wonderful or reads like poetry, will it make any difference to us who created it?”

Sadly, I think not. The sweat and blood that composers and artists pour into their compositions could be a thing of the past. If we see this in the fine arts, then it seems an inevitable consequence for design as well. Once the AI learns the characters, behaviors and personalities of the characters in The Lightstream Chronicles, it can create new episodes without me. Taking characters and setting that already exist as CG constructs, it’s not a stretch that it will be able to generate the wireframes, render the images, and layout the panels.

Would this app help me in my work? It could probably do it in a fraction of the time that it would take me, but could I honestly say it’s mine?

When art and music are all so easily reconstructed and perfect, I wonder if we will miss the flaw. Will we miss that human scratch on the surface of perfection, the thing that reminds us that we are human?

There is probably an algorithm for that, too. Just go to settings > humanness and use the slider.

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How we made the future in the past.



Decisions. Decisions. Today’s blog was a toss up between another drone update (probably next week) and some optimistic technology news (for a change). Instead, I decided to go another route entirely. This week FastCo blurbed a piece on the “new” limited edition book collection, “The Making of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. It’s no so new, the 4 volume set that sold for $1000 sold out in no time, but the story is a compelling one. The $70, second printing is on my Christmas list. There are a dozen fascinating angles to the 2001 production story. FastCo’s article, “The Amazingly Accurate Futurism of 2001: A Space Odyssey“, focuses on the film’s “attention to the technical and design details that made the film such an enduring paragon almost 50 years after its release.” I could not agree more. This latest book’s author, Piers Bizony wrote a predecessor back in 1994 entitled “2001: filming the future.” This book is currently out of print, but I managed to snag a copy for my library. It’s a captivating story, but like FastCo, I am in awe of Kubrick’s brilliance in the team he brought together to build the sets and design the props.

“He assembled a skunkworks team of astronomical artists, aeronautics specialists, and production designers. Aerospace engineers—not prop makers—designed switch panels, display systems, and communications devices for the spacecraft interiors.”

The objective was realism and total believability. It worked. I remember seeing it in the theater on the BIG screen (I was five years old). There was nothing else like it — ever— a testimony to the fact that we still marvel at its accuracy nearly fifty years later.

Clearly Kubrick was a visionary, but what might be more impressive is how they made it look so real. Today, we watch tidal waves take out New York City, and 20 story robots transform into sports cars. It has almost become ho-hum. To capture the effects that Kubrick did it required an inspiring level of ingenuity. Much of this goes to his production designers and the genius of Douglas Trumbull. These special effects, people walking on walls, floating in weightlessness, or believable spacecraft gliding through the cosmos were analog creations. Take for example the gracefully revolving centrifuge: they built it. Or the spacewalking scenes that I believe are every bit as good as 2013’s Gravity. The film was full of artifacts from the future and a tribute to design and engineering problem solving that was and is most rare.


They built it!

I could rave about this movie all day, but I can’t sign off until I rave a bit about the film itself. By this, I mean the story. First released in 1968, at the crux of this narrative is an Artificial Intelligence that becomes self-aware. It is so freaking convincing that I leave with this clip. You can also get a taste of how truly visual this film was.

Photo from 2001: Filming the future. Piers Bizony 1996
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The killer feature for every app.

I have often asked the question: If we could visit the future “in-person” how would it affect us upon our return? How vigorously would we engage our redefined present? Part of the idea behind design fiction, for me, is making the future seem real enough to us that we want to discuss it and ask ourselves is this the future we want. If not, what can we do about it, how might it be changed, refined, or avoided altogether? In a more pessimistic light, I also wonder whether anything could be real enough to rouse us from our media-induced stupor. And the potion is getting stronger.

After Monday and Tuesday this week I was beginning to think it would be a slow news week in the future-tech sector. Not so. (At least I didn’t stumble on to them until Wednesday.)

1. Be afraid.

A scary new novel is out called Ghost Fleet. It sounds immensely entertaining, but also ominously possible. It harkens back to some of my previous blogs on autonomous weapons and the harbinger of ubiquitous hacking. How am I going to get time to read this? That’s another issue.

2. Play it again.

Google applied for this years ago, but their patent on storing “memories” was approved this week. It appears as though it would have been a feature for the ill-fated Google Glass but could easily be embedded in any visual recording function from networked cameras to a user’s contact lens. Essentially it lets you “play-back” whatever you saw, assuming you are wearing or integrating the appropriate recording device, or software. “Siri, replay my vacation!” I must admit it sounds cool.

Ghost Fleet, Google memories, uber hacking, Thync.

Ghost Fleet, Google memories, uber hacking, and Thync.

3. Hack-a-mania.

How’s this for a teaser? RESEARCHERS HACKED THE BRAKES OF A CORVETTE WITH TEXT MESSAGES. That’s what Fast Company threw out there on Wednesday, but it originated with WIRED magazine. It’s the latest since the Jeep-Jacking incident just weeks ago. See how fast technology moves? In that episode the hackers, or jackers, whatever, used their laptops to control just about every technology the Jeep had available. However, according to WIRED,

“…a new piece of research suggests there may be an even easier way for hackers to wirelessly access those critical driving functions: Through an entire industry of potentially insecure, internet-enabled gadgets plugged directly into cars’ most sensitive guts.”

In this instance,

“A 2-inch-square gadget that’s designed to be plugged into cars’ and trucks’ dashboards and used by insurance firms and trucking fleets to monitor vehicles’ location, speed and efficiency.”

The article clearly demonstrates that these devices are vulnerable to attack, even in government vehicles and, I presume the White House limo as well. You guys better get to work on that.

4. Think about this.

A new $300 device called Thync is now available to stick on your forehead to either relax or energize you through neurosignaling, AKA  electricity, that zaps your brain “safely”. It’s not unrelated to the less sexy shock therapy of ages past. Reports tell me that this is anything but all figured out, but just like the above list, it’s just a matter of time until it escalates to the next level.

So what ties all these together? If we look at the historical track of technology, the overarching theme is convergence. All the things that once were separate have now converged. Movies, texts, phone calls, games, GPS, bar-code scanning, cameras and about a thousand other technologies have converged into your phone or your laptop, or tablet. It is a safe bet to see that this trend will continue, in addition to getting smaller and eventually implanted. Isn’t technology wonderful?

The only problem is that we have yet to figure out the security issues. Do we, for one moment, think that hacking will go away? We rush new apps and devices to market with a “We’ll fix that later,” mentality. It’s just a matter of time until your energy, mood, “memories”, or our national security are up for grabs. Seems like security ought to be on the feature list of every new gadget, especially the ones that access out bodies, our safety, or our information. That’s pretty much everything, by the way. The idea is especially important because, let’s face it, everything we think is secure, isn’t.

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Meddling with the primal forces of nature.



One of the more ominous articles of recent weeks came from WIRED magazine in an article about the proliferation of DNA editing. The story is rich with technical talk and it gets bogged down in places but essentially it is about a group of scientists who are concerned about the Pandora’s Box they may have created with something called Crispr-Cas9, or Crispr for short. Foreseeing this as far back as 1975, the group thought that establishing “guidelines” for what biologists could and could not do; things like creating pathogens and mutations that could be passed on from generation to generation — maybe even in humans — were on the list of concerns. It all seemed very far off back in the 70’s, but not anymore. According to WIRED writer Amy Maxmen,

“Crispr-Cas9 makes it easy, cheap, and fast to move genes around—any genes, in any living thing, from bacteria to people.”

Maxmen states that startups are launching with Crispr as their focus. Two quotes that I have used excessively come to mind. First, Tobias Revell: “Someone, somewhere in a lab is playing with your future.”1. Next, from a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis: “We don’t write laws to protect against impossible things, so when the impossible becomes possible, we shouldn’t be surprised that the law doesn’t protect against it…” 2.

And so, we play catch-up. From the WIRED article:

“It could at last allow genetics researchers to conjure everything anyone has ever worried they would—designer babies, invasive mutants, species-specific bioweapons, and a dozen other apocalyptic sci-fi tropes. It brings with it all-new rules for the practice of research in the life sciences. But no one knows what the rules are—or who will be the first to break them.”

The most disconcerting part of all this, to me, is that now, before the rules exist that even the smallest breach in protocol could unleash repercussions of Biblical proportions. Everything from killer mosquitoes and flying spiders, horrific mutations and pandemics are up for grabs.

We’re not even close to ready for this. Don’t tell me that it could eradicate AIDS or Huntington’s disease. That is the coat that is paraded out whenever a new technology peers its head over the horizon.

“Now, with less than $100, an ordinary arachnologist can snip the wing gene out of a spider embryo and see what happens when that spider matures.”


From the movie “Splice”. Sometimes bad movies can be the most prophetic.

It is time to get the public involved in these issues whether through grass-roots efforts or persistence with their elected officials to spearhead some legislation.

“…straight-out editing of a human embryo sets off all sorts of alarms, both in terms of ethics and legality. It contravenes the policies of the US National Institutes of Health, and in spirit at least runs counter to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights. (Of course, when the US government said it wouldn’t fund research on human embryonic stem cells, private entities raised millions of dollars to do it themselves.) Engineered humans are a ways off—but nobody thinks they’re science fiction anymore.”

Maxmen interviewed Harvard geneticist George Church. In a closer to the article,

“When I ask Church for his most nightmarish Crispr scenario, he mutters something about weapons and then stops short. He says he hopes to take the specifics of the idea, whatever it is, to his grave. But thousands of other scientists are working on Crispr. Not all of them will be as cautious. “You can’t stop science from progressing,” Jinek says. “Science is what it is.” He’s right. Science gives people power. And power is unpredictable.”

Who do you trust?



1. Critical Exploits. Performed by Tobias Revell. YouTube. January 28, 2014. Accessed February 14, 2014.
2. Farivar, Cyrus. “DOJ Calls for Drone Privacy Policy 7 Years after FBI’s First Drone Launched.” Ars Technica. September 27, 2013. Accessed March 13, 2014.
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The Robo-Apocalypse. Part 2.


Last week I talked about how the South Koreans have developed a 50 caliber toting, nearly autonomous weapon system and have sold a few dozen around the world. This week I feel obligated to finish up on my promise of the drone with a pistol. I discovered this from a WIRED article. It was a little tongue-in-cheek piece that analyzed a YouTube video and concluded that pistol-packing drone is probably real. I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t believe that this is a really bad idea, including the author of the piece. Nevertheless, if we were to make a list of unintended consequences of DIY drone technology, (just some simple brainstorming) the list, after a few minutes, would be a long one.

This week FastCo reported that  NASA held a little get-together with about 1,000 invited guests from the drone industry to talk about a plan to manage the traffic when, as the agency believes, “every home will have a drone, and every home will serve as an airport at some point in the future”. NASA’s plan takes things slowly. Still the agency predicts that we will be able to get our packages from Amazon and borrow a cup of sugar from Aunt Gladys down the street, even in populated areas, by 2019.

Someone taking action is good news as we work to fix another poorly conceived technology that quickly went rogue. Unfortunately, it does nothing about the guy who wants to shoot down the Amazon drone for sport (or anyone/anything else for that matter).

On the topic of bad ideas, this week The Future Of Life Institute, a research organization out of Boston issued an open letter warning the world that autonomous weapons powered by artificial intelligence (AI) were imminent. The reasonable concern here is that a computer will do the kill-or-not-kill, bomb-or-not-bomb thinking, without the human fail-safe. Here’s an excerpt from the letter:

“Unlike nuclear weapons, they require no costly or hard-to-obtain raw materials, so they will become ubiquitous and cheap for all significant military powers to mass-produce. It will only be a matter of time until they appear on the black market and in the hands of terrorists, dictators wishing to better control their populace, warlords wishing to perpetrate ethnic cleansing, etc. Autonomous weapons are ideal for tasks such as assassinations, destabilizing nations, subduing populations and selectively killing a particular ethnic group. We therefore believe that a military AI arms race would not be beneficial for humanity. There are many ways in which AI can make battlefields safer for humans, especially civilians, without creating new tools for killing people.” [Emphasis mine.]

The letter is short. You should read it. For once we have and example of those smart people I alluded to last week, the ones with compassion and vision. For virtually every “promising” new technology—from the seemingly good to the undeniably dangerous) we need people who can foresee the unintended consequences of one-sided promises. Designers, scientists, and engineers are prime candidates to look into the future and wave these red flags. Then the rest of the world needs to pay attention.

Once again, however, the technology is here and whether it is legal or illegal, banned or not banned the cat is out of the bag. It is kind of like a nuclear explosion. Some things you just can’t take back.

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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: Artist's commentary is also posted here in conjunction with each new comic page. The author's professional portfolio can be found at: There is also a cyberpunk tumblr site at:
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