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 physics.org:

“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 Amazon.com 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.

1. http://helios.gsfc.nasa.gov/qa_gp_elm.html

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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 asiaone.com) 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 | hbr.org
2. http://www.machinelearningalgorithms.com
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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 dictionary.com 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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