The nature of the unpredictable.

 

Following up on last week’s post, I confessed some concern about technologies that progress too quickly and combine unpredictably.

Stewart Brand introduced the 1968 Whole Earth Catalog with, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”1 Thirty-two years later, he wrote that new technologies such as computers, biotechnology and nanotechnology are self-accelerating, that they differ from older, “stable, predictable and reliable,” technologies such as television and the automobile. Brand states that new technologies “…create conditions that are unstable, unpredictable and unreliable…. We can understand natural biology, subtle as it is because it holds still. But how will we ever be able to understand quantum computing or nanotechnology if its subtlety keeps accelerating away from us?”2. If we combine Brand’s concern with Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns and the current supporting evidence exponentially, as the evidence supports, will it be as Brand suggests unpredictable?

Last week I discussed an article from WIRED Magazine on the VR/MR company Magic Leap. The author writes,

“Even if you’ve never tried virtual reality, you probably possess a vivid expectation of what it will be like. It’s the Matrix, a reality of such convincing verisimilitude that you can’t tell if it’s fake. It will be the Metaverse in Neal Stephenson’s rollicking 1992 novel, Snow Crash, an urban reality so enticing that some people never leave it.”

And it will be. It is, as I said last week, entirely logical to expect it.

We race toward these technologies with visions of mind-blowing experiences or life-changing cures, and usually, we imagine only the upside. We all too often forget the human factor. Let’s look at some other inevitable technological developments.
• Affordable DNA testing will tell you your risk of inheriting a disease or debilitating condition.
• You can ingest a pill that tells your doctor, or you in case you forgot, that you took your medicine.
• Soon we will have life-like robotic companions.
• Virtual reality is affordable, amazingly real and completely user-friendly.

These are simple scenarios because they will likely have aspects that make them even more impressive, more accessible and more profoundly useful. And like most technological developments, they will also become mundane and expected. But along with them come the possibility of a whole host of unintended consequences. Here are a few.
• The government’s universal healthcare requires that citizens have a DNA test before you qualify.
• It monitors whether you’ve taken your medication and issues a fine if you don’t, even if you don’t want your medicine.
• A robotic, life-like companion can provide support and encouragement, but it could also be your outlet for violent behavior or abuse.
• The virtual world is so captivating and pleasurable that you don’t want to leave, or it gets to the point where it is addicting.

It seems as though whenever we involve human nature, we set ourselves up for unintended consequences. Perhaps it is not the nature of technology to be unpredictable; it is us.

1. Brand, Stewart. “WE ARE AS GODS.” The Whole Earth Catalog, September 1968, 1-58. Accessed May 04, 2015. http://www.wholeearth.com/issue/1010/article/195/we.are.as.gods.
2. Brand, Stewart. “Is Technology Moving Too Fast? Self-Accelerating Technologies-Computers That Make Faster Computers, For Example – May Have a Destabilizing Effect on .Society.” TIME, 2000
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Design fiction. I want to believe.

 

I have blogged in the past about logical succession. When it comes to creating realistic design fiction narrative, there needs to be a sense of believability. Coates1 calls this “plausible reasoning.”, “[…]putting together what you know to create a path leading to one or several new states or conditions, at a distance in time.” In other words, for the audience to suspend their disbelief, there has to be a basic understanding of how we got here. If you depict something that is too fantastic, your audience won’t buy it, especially if you are trying to say that, “This could happen.”

“When design fictions are conceivable and realistically executed they carry a greater potential for making an impact and focusing discussion and debate around these future scenarios.”2

In my design futures collaborative studio, I ask students to do a rigorous investigation of future technologies, the ones that are on the bleeding edge. Then I want them to ask, “What if?” It is easier said than done. Particularly because of technological convergence, the way technologies merge with other technologies to form heretofore unimagined opportunities.

There was an article this week in Wired Magazine concerning a company called Magic Leap. They are in the MR business, mixed reality as opposed to virtual reality. With MR, the virtual imagery happens within the space you’re in—in front of your eyes—rather than in an entirely virtual space. The demo from Wired’s site is pretty convincing. The future of MR and VR, for me, are easy to predict. Will it get more realistic? Yes. Will it get cheaper, smaller, and ubiquitous? Yes. At this point, a prediction like this is entirely logical. Twenty-five years ago it would not have been as easy to imagine.

As the Wired article states,

“[…]the arrival of mass-market VR wasn’t imminent.[…]Twenty-five years later a most unlikely savior emerged—the smartphone! Its runaway global success drove the quality of tiny hi-res screens way up and their cost way down. Gyroscopes and motion sensors embedded in phones could be borrowed by VR displays to track head, hand, and body positions for pennies. And the processing power of a modern phone’s chip was equal to an old supercomputer, streaming movies on the tiny screen with ease.”

To have predicted that VR would be where it is today with billions of dollars pouring into fledgling technologies and realistic, and utterly convincing demonstrations would have been illogical. It would have been like throwing a magnet into a bucket of nails, rolling it around and guessing which nails would end up coming out attached.

What is my point? I think it is important to remind ourselves that things will move blindingly fast particularly when companies like Google and Facebook are throwing money at them. Then, the advancement of one only adds to the possibilities of the next iteration possibly in ways that no one can predict. As VR or MR merges with biotech or artificial reality, or just about anything else you can imagine, the possibilities are endless.

Unpredictable technology makes me uncomfortable. Next week I’ll tell you why.

 

  1. Coates, J.F., 2010. The future of foresight—A US perspective. Technological Forecasting & Social Change 77, 1428–1437.
  2. E. Scott Denison. “Timed-release Design Fiction: A Digital Online Methodology to Provoke Reflection on our Socio- Technological Future.”  Edited by Michal Derda Nowakowski. ISBN: 978-1-84888-427-4 Interdisciplinary.net.
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Are we ready to be gods? Revisited.

 

I base today’s blog on a 2013 post with a look at the world from the perspective of The Lightstream Chronicles, which takes place in the year 2159. To me, this is a very plausible future. — ESD

 

There was a time when crimes were simpler. Humans committed crimes against other humans — not so simple anymore. In that world, you have the old-fashioned mano a mano, but you also have human against synthetic, and synthetic against the human. There are creative variations as well.

It was bound to happen. No sooner than the first lifelike robots became commercially available in the late 2020’s, there were issues of ethics and misuse. Though scientists and ethicists discussed the topic in the early part of the 21st century, the problems escalated faster than the robotics industry had conceived possible.

According to the 2007 Roboethics Roadmap,

“…problems inherent in the possible emergence of human function in the robot: like consciousness, free will, self-consciousness, sense of dignity, emotions, and so on. Consequently, this is why we have not examined problems — debated in literature — like the need not to consider robot as our slaves, or the need to guarantee them the same respect, rights and dignity we owe to human workers.”1

In the 21st century many of the concerns within the scientific community centered around what we as humans might do to infringe upon the “rights” of the robot. Back in 2007, it occurred to researchers that the discussion of roboethics needed to include more fundamental questions regarding the ethics of the robots’ designers, manufacturers and users. However, once in the role of the creator-god, they did not foresee how “unprepared” for that responsibility we were as a society, and how quickly humans would pervert the robot for formerly “unethical” uses, including but not limited to their modification for crime and perversion.

Nevertheless, more than 100 years later, when synthetic human production is at the highest levels in history, the questions of ethics in both humans and their creations remain a significant point of controversy. As the 2007 Roboethics Roadmap concluded, “It is absolutely clear that without a deep rooting of Roboethics in society, the premises for the implementation of an artificial ethics in the robots’ control systems will be missing.”

After these initial introductions of humanoid robots, now seen as almost comically primitive, the technology, and in turn the reasoning, emotions, personality and realism became progressively more sophisticated. Likewise, their implementations became progressively more like the society that manufactured them. They became images of their creators both benevolent and malevolent.

Schematic1Longm
In our image?

 

 

A series of laws were enacted to prevent the use of humanoid robots for criminal intent, yet at the same time, military interests were fully pursuing dispassionate automated humanoid robots with the express purpose of extermination. It was truly a time of paradoxical technologies. To further complicate the issue were ongoing debates on the nature of what was considered “criminal”. Could a robot become a criminal without human intervention? Is something criminal if it is consensual?

These issues ultimately evolved into complex social, economic, political, and legal entanglement that included heavy government regulation and oversight where such was achievable. As this complexity and infrastructure grew to accommodate the continually expanding technology, the greatest promise and challenges came almost 100 years after those first humanoid robots. With the advent of virtual human brains now being grown in labs, the readily identifiable differences between synthetic humans and real human gradually began to disappear. The similarities were so shocking and so undetectable that new legislation was enacted to restrict the use of virtual humans, and classification system was established to ensure visible distinctions for the vast variety of social synthetics.

The concerns of the very first Roboethics Roadmap are confirmed even 150 years into the future. Synthetics are still abused and used to perpetrate crimes. Their virtual humanness only adds an element of complexity, reality, and in some cases, horror to the creativity of how they are used.

 

 1 Euron Roboethics Roadmap
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Nine years from now.

 

Today I’m on my soapbox, again, as an advocate of design thinking, of which design fiction is part of the toolbox.

In 2014, the Pew Research Center published a report on Digital Life in 2025. Therein, “The report covers experts’ views about advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, and their impact on jobs and employment.” Their nutshell conclusion was that:

“Experts envision automation and intelligent digital agents permeating vast areas of our work and personal lives by 2025, (9 years from now), but they are divided on whether these advances will displace more jobs than they create.”

On the upside, some of the “experts” believe that we will, as the brilliant humans that we are, invent new kinds of uniquely human work that we can’t replace with AI—a return to an artisanal society with more time for leisure and our loved ones. Some think we will be freed from the tedium of work and find ways to grow in some other “socially beneficial” pastime. Perhaps we will just be chillin’ with our robo-buddy.

On the downside, there are those who believe that not only blue-collar, robotic, jobs will vanish, but also white-collar, thinking jobs, and that will leave a lot of people out of work since there are only so many jobs as clerks at McDonald’s or greeters at Wal-Mart. They think that some of these are the fault of education for not better preparing us for the future.

A few weeks ago I blogged about people who are thinking about addressing these concerns with something called Universal Basic Income (UBI), a $12,000 gift to everyone in the world since everyone will be out of work. I’m guessing (though it wasn’t explicitly stated) that this money would come from all the corporations that are raking in the bucks by employing the AI’s, the robots and the digital agents, but who don’t have anyone on the payroll anymore. The advocates of this idea did not address whether the executives at these companies, presumably still employed, will make more than $12,000, nor whether the advocates themselves were on the 12K list. I guess not. They also did not specify who would buy the services that these corporations were offering if we are all out of work. But I don’t want to repeat that rant here.

I’m not as optimistic about the unique capabilities of humankind to find new, uniquely human jobs in some new, utopian artisanal society. Music, art, and blogs are already being written by AI, by the way. I do agree, however, that we are not educating our future decision-makers to adjust adequately to whatever comes along. The process of innovative design thinking is a huge hedge against technology surprise, but few schools have ever entertained the notion and some have never even heard of it. In some cases, it has been adopted, but as a bastardized hybrid to serve business-as-usual competitive one-upmanship.

I do believe that design, in its newest and most innovative realizations, is the place for these anticipatory discussions and future. What we need is thinking that encompasses a vast array of cross-disciplinary input, including philosophy and religion, because these issues are more than black and white, they are ethically and morally charged, and they are inseparable from our culture—the scaffolding that we as a society use to answer our most existential questions. There is a lot of work to do to survive ourselves.

 

 

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Artificial intelligence isn’t really intelligence—yet. I hate to say I told you so.

 

Last week, we discovered that there is a new side to AI. And I don’t mean to gloat, but I saw this potential pitfall as fairly obvious. It is interesting that the real world event that triggered all the talk occurred within days of episode 159 of The Lightstream Chronicles. In my story, Keiji-T, a synthetic police investigator virtually indistinguishable from a human, questions the conclusions of an Artificial Intelligence engine called HAPP-E. The High Accuracy Perpetrator Profiling Engine is designed to assimilate all of the minutiae surrounding a criminal act and spit out a description of the perpetrator. In today’s society, profiling is a human endeavor and is especially useful in identifying difficult-to-catch offenders. Though the procedure is relatively new in the 21st century and goes by many different names, the American Psychological Association says,

“…these tactics share a common goal: to help investigators examine evidence from crime scenes and victim and witness reports to develop an offender description. The description can include psychological variables such as personality traits, psychopathologies and behavior patterns, as well as demographic variables such as age, race or geographic location. Investigators might use profiling to narrow down a field of suspects or figure out how to interrogate a suspect already in custody.”

This type of data is perfect for feeding into an AI, which uses neural networks and predictive algorithms to draw conclusions and recommend decisions. Of course, AI can do it in seconds whereas an FBI unit may take days, months, or even years. The way AI works, as I have reported many times before, is based on tremendous amounts of data. “With the advent of big data, the information going in only amplifies the veracity of the recommendations coming out.” In this way, machines can learn which is the whole idea behind autonomous vehicles making split-second decisions about what to do next based on billions of possibilities and only one right answer.

In my sci-fi episode mentioned above, Detective Guren describes a perpetrator produced by the AI known as HAPP-E . Keiji-T, forever the devil’s advocate, counters with this comment, “Data is just data. Someone who knows how a probability engine works could have adopted the characteristics necessary to produce this deduction.” In other words, if you know what the engine is trying to do, theoretically you could ‘teach’ the AI using false data to produce a false deduction.

Episode 159. It seems fairly obvious.
Episode 159. It seems fairly obvious.

I published Episode 159 on March 18, 2016. Then an interesting thing happened in the tech world. A few days later Microsoft launched an AI chatbot called Tay (a millennial nickname for Taylor) designed to have conversations with — millennials. The idea was that Tay would become as successful as their Chinese version named XiaoIce, which has been around for four years and engages millions of young Chinese in discussions of millennial angst with a chatbot. Tay used three platforms: Twitter, Kik and GroupMe.

Then something went wrong. In less than 24 hours, Tay went from tweeting that “humans are super cool” to full-blown Nazi. Soon after Tay launched, the super-sketchy enclaves of 4chan and 8chan decided to get malicious and manipulate the Tay engine feeding it racist and sexist invective. If you feed an AI enough garbage, it will ‘learn’ that garbage is the norm and begin to repeat it. Before Tay’s first day was over, Microsoft took it down, removed the offensive tweets and apologized.

Taygoeswild
Crazy talk.

Apparently, Microsoft, though it had considered that such a thing was possible, but decided not to use filters (conversations to avoid or canned answers to volatile subjects). Experts in the chatbot field were quick to criticize: “‘You absolutely do NOT let an algorithm mindlessly devour a whole bunch of data that you haven’t vetted even a little bit.’ In other words, Microsoft should have known better than to let Tay loose on the raw uncensored torrent of what Twitter could direct her way.”

The tech site, Arstechnica also probed the question of “…why Tay turned nasty when XiaoIce didn’t?” The assessment thus far is that China’s highly restrictive measures keep social media “ideologically appropriate”, and under control. The censors will close your account for bad behavior.

So, what did we learn from this? AI, at least as it exists today, has no understanding. It has no morals and or ethical behavior unless you give it some. Then next questions are: Who decides what is moral and ethical? Will it be the people (we saw what happened with that) or some other financial or political power? Maybe the problem is with the premise itself. What do you think?

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