An example of impending convergence.

 

The IBM Research Alliance and partners have announced this week that they have developed “…an industry-first process to build silicon nanosheet transistors that will enable 5 nanometer (nm) chips – achieving a scale of 30 billion switches on a fingernail-sized chip that will deliver significant power and performance enhancements over today’s state-of-the-art 10nm chips.”

Silicon nanosheet transistors at 5nm

Along with this new development there, of course, come promises that the technology

“…can deliver 40 percent performance enhancement at fixed power, or 75 percent power savings at matched performance. This improvement enables a significant boost to meeting the future demands of artificial intelligence (AI) systems, virtual reality and mobile devices.”

That’s a lot of tech-speech, but essentially it means your computing will happen faster, your devices will be more powerful and use less battery life.

In a previous blog, I discussed the nanometer idea.

“A nanometer is very small. Nanotech concerns itself with creations that exist in the 100nm range and below, roughly 7,500 times smaller than a human hair. In the Moore’s Law race, nanothings are the next frontier in cramming data onto a computer chip, or implanting them into our brains or living cells.”

Right now, IBM and their partners see this new development as a big plus to the future of their cognitive systems. What are cognitive systems?

IBM can answer that:

“Humans are on the cusp of augmenting their lives in extraordinary ways with AI. At IBM Research Labs around the globe, we envision and develop next-generation systems that work side-by-side with humans, accelerating our ability to create, learn, make decisions and think. We also architect the future of Watson, which has evolved from an IBM Research project to the world’s first and most-advanced AI platform.”

So it’s Watson and lots of other AI that may see the biggest benefits as a result of this new tech. With smaller, faster, more efficient chips AI can live a more robust life inside your phone or another device. But thinking phone is probably thinking way too big. Think of something much smaller but just as powerful.

Of course, every new technology comes with promises.

“Whether exploring new technical capabilities, collaborating on ethical practices or applying Watson technology to cancer research, financial decision-making, oil exploration or educational toys, IBM Research is shaping the future of AI.”

It’s all about AI and how we can augment “our lives in extraordinary ways.” Assuming that everyone plays nice, this is another example of technology poised for great things for humankind. Undoubtedly, micro-sized AI can be used for all sorts of nefarious purposes so let’s hope that the “ethical practices” part of their research is getting equal weight.

The question we have yet to ask is whether a faster, smaller, more powerful, all-knowing, steadily accelerating AI is something we truly need. This is a debate worth having. In the meantime, a 5 nm chip breakthrough is an excellent example of how a new, breakthrough technology awaits application by others for a myriad of purposes, advancing them all, in particular ways, by leaps and bounds. Who are these others? And what will they do next?

The right thing to do. Remember that idea?

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On utopia and dystopia. Part 2.

From now on we paint only pretty pictures. Get it?

A couple of blarticles (blog-like articles) caught my eye this week. Interestingly, the two blarticles reference the same work. There was a big brew-haha a couple of years ago about how dystopian science fiction and design fiction with dystopian themes were somehow bad for us and that people were getting sick of it. Based on the most recent lists of bestselling books and films, that no longer seems to be the case. Nevertheless, some science fiction writers like Cory Doctorow (a fine author and Hugo winner) think that possibly more utopian futures would be better at influencing public policy. As he wrote in Boing Boing earlier this month,

“Science fiction writers have a long history of intervening/meddling in policy, but historically this has been in the form of right-wing science fiction writers…”

Frankly, I have no idea what this has to do with politics as there must certainly be more left handed authors and filmmakers in Hollywood than their right-sided counterparts. He continues:

“But a new, progressive wing of design fiction practicioners [sic] are increasingly involved in policy questions…”

Doctorow’s article cites a long piece for Slate, by the New America Foundation’s Kevin Bankston. Bankston says,

“…a stellar selection of 64 bestselling sci-fi writers and visionary filmmakers, has tasked itself with imagining realistic, possible, positive futures that we might actually want to live in—and figuring out we can get from here to there.”

That’s great, because, as I said, I am all about making alternative futures legible for people to consider and contemplate. In the process, however, I don’t think we should give dystopia short shrift. The problem with utopias is that they tend to be prescriptive, in other words, ”This is a better future because I say so.”

The futures I conjure up are neither utopian nor dystopian, but I do try to surface real concerns so that people can decide for themselves, kind of like a democracy. History has proven that regardless of our utopian ideals we more often than not mess things up. I don’t want it to be progressive, liberal, conservative or right wing, and I don’t think it should be the objective of science fiction or entertainment to help shape these policies especially when there is an obvious political purpose. It’s one thing to make alternative futures legible, another to shove them at us.

As long as it’s fiction and entertaining utopias are great but let’s not kid ourselves. Utopia and to some extent dystopia are individual perspectives. Frankly, I don’t want someone telling me that one future is better for me than another. In fact, that almost borders on dystopia in my thinking.

I’m not sure whether Bruce Sterling was answering Cory Doctorow’s piece, but Sterling’s stance on the issue is sharper and more insightful. Sterling is acutely aware that today is the focus. We look at futures, and we realize there are steps we need to take today to make tomorrow better. I recommend his post. Here are a couple of choice clips:

“*The “better future” thing is jam-tomorrow and jam-yesterday talk, so it tends to become the enemy of jam today. You’re better off reading history, and realizing that public aspirations that do seem great, and that even meet with tremendous innovative success, can change the tenor of society and easily become curses a generation later. Not because they were ever bad ideas or bad things to aspire to or do, but because that’s the nature of historical causality. Tomorrow composts today.”

“*If you like doing incredible things, because you’re of a science fictional temperament, then you should frankly admit your fondness for the way-out and the wondrous, and not disingenuously pretend that it’s somehow bound to improve the lot of the mundanes.”

Prettier pictures are not going to save us. Most of the world needs a wake-up call, not another dream.

In my humble opinion.

 

How science fiction writers’ “design fiction” is playing a greater role in policy debates

Various sci-fi projects allegedly creating a better future

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On utopia and dystopia. Part 1.

A couple of interesting articles cropped up in that past week or so coming out of the WIRED Business Conference. The first was an interview with Jennifer Doudna, a pioneer of Crispr/Cas9 the gene editing technique that makes editing DNA nearly as simple as splicing a movie together. That is if you’re a geneticist. According to the interview, most of this technology is at use in crop design, for things like longer lasting potatoes or wheat that doesn’t mildew. But Doudna knows that this is a potential Pandora’s Box.

“In 2015, Doudna was part of a broad coalition of leading biologists who agreed to a worldwide moratorium on gene editing to the “germ line,” which is to say, edits that get passed along to subsequent generations. But it’s legally non-binding, and scientists in China have already begun experiments that involve editing the genome of human embryos.”

Crispr May Cure All Genetic Disease—One Day

Super-babies are just one of the potential ways to misuse Crispr. I blogged a longer and more diabolical list a couple of years ago.

Meddling with the primal forces of nature.

In Doudna’s recent interview, though she focused on the more positive effects on farming, things like rice and tomatoes.

You may not immediately see the connection, but there was a related story from the same conference where WIRED interviewed Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy co-creators of the HBO series Westworld. If you haven’t seen Westworld, I recommend it if only for Anthony Hopkins’ performance. As far as I’m concerned Anthony Hopkins could read the phone book, and I would be spellbound.

At any rate, the article quotes:

“The first season of Westworld wasted no time in going from “hey cool, robots!” to “well, that was bleak.” Death, destruction, android torture—it’s all been there from the pilot onward.”

Which pretty much sums it up. According to Nolan,
“We’re inventing cautionary tales for ourselves…”

“And Joy sees Westworld, and sci-fi in general, as an opportunity to talk about what humanity could or should do if things start to go wrong, especially now that advancements in artificial intelligence technologies are making things like androids seem far more plausible than before. “We’re leaping into the age of the unfathomable, the time when machines [can do things we can’t],”

Joy said.

Westworld’s Creators Know Why Sci-Fi Is So Dystopian

To me, this sounds familiar. It is the essence of my particular brand of design fiction. I don’t always set out to make it dystopian but if we look at the way things seem to naturally evolve, virtually every technology once envisioned as a benefit to humankind ends up with someone misusing it. To look at any potentially transformative tech and not ask, “Transform into what?” is simply irresponsible. We love to sell our ideas on their promise of curing disease, saving lives, and ending suffering, but the technologies that we are designing today have epic downsides that many technologists do not even understand. Misuse happens so often that I’ve begun to see us a reckless if we don’t anticipate these repercussions in advance. It’s the subject of a new paper that I’m working toward.

In the meantime, it’s important that we pay attention and demand that others do, too.

There’s more from the science fiction world on utopias vs. dystopias, and I’ll cover that next week.

 

 

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An AI as President?

 

Back on May 19th, before I went on holiday, I promised to comment on an article that appeared that week advocating that we would better off with artificial intelligence (AI) as President of the United States. Joshua Davis authored the piece: Hear me out: Let’s Elect
An AI As President, for the business section of WIRED  online. Let’s start out with a few quotes.

“An artificially intelligent president could be trained to
maximize happiness for the most people without infringing on civil liberties.”

“Within a decade, tens of thousands of people will entrust their daily commute—and their safety—to an algorithm, and they’ll do it happily…The increase in human productivity and happiness will be enormous.”

Let’s start with the word happiness. What is that anyway? I’ve seen it around in several discourses about the future, that somehow we have to start focusing on human happiness above all things, but what makes me happy and what makes you happy may very well be different things. Then there is the frightening idea that it is the job of government to make us happy! There are a lot of folks out there that the government should give us a guaranteed income, pay for our healthcare, and now, apparently, it should also make us happy. If you haven’t noticed from my previous blogs, I am not a progressive. If you believe that government should undertake the happy challenge, you had better hope that their idea of happiness coincides with your own. Gerd Leonhard, a futurist whose work I respect, says that there are two types of happiness: first is hedonic (pleasure) which tends to be temporary, and the other is a eudaimonic happiness which he defines as human flourishing.1 I prefer the latter as it is likely to be more meaningful. Meaning is rather crucial to well-being and purpose in life. I believe that we should be responsible for our happiness. God help us if we leave it up to a machine.

This brings me to my next issue with this insane idea. Davis suggests that by simply not driving, there will be an enormous increase in human productivity and happiness. According to the website overflow data,

“Of the 139,786,639 working individuals in the US, 7,000,722, or about 5.01%, use public transit to get to work according to the 2013 American Communities Survey.”

Are those 7 million working individuals who don’t drive happier and more productive? The survey should have asked, but I’m betting the answer is no. Davis also assumes that everyone will be able to afford an autonomous vehicle. Maybe providing every American with an autonomous vehicle is also the job of the government.

Where I agree with Davis is that we will probably abdicate our daily commute to an algorithm and do it happily. Maybe this is the most disturbing part of his argument. As I am fond of saying, we are sponges for technology, and we often adopt new technology without so much as a thought toward the broader ramifications of what it means to our humanity.

There are sober people out there advocating that we must start to abdicate our decision-making to algorithms because we have too many decisions to make. They are concerned that the current state of affairs is simply too painful for humankind. If you dig into the rationale that these experts are using, many of them are motivated by commerce. Already Google and Facebook and the algorithms of a dozen different apps are telling you what you should buy, where you should eat, who you should “friend” and, in some cases, what you should think. They give you news (real or fake), and they tell you this is what will make you happy. Is it working? Agendas are everywhere, but very few of them have you in the center.

As part of his rationale, Davis cites the proven ability for AI to beat the world’s Go champions over and over and over again, and that it can find melanomas better than board-certified dermatologists.

“It won’t be long before an AI is sophisticated enough to
implement a core set of beliefs in ways that reflect changes in the world. In other words, the time is coming when AIs will have better judgment than most politicians.”

That seems like grounds to elect one as President, right? In fact, it is just another way for us to take our eye off the ball, to subordinate our autonomy to more powerful forces in the belief that technology will save us and make us happier.

Back to my previous point, that’s what is so frightening. It is precisely the kind of argument that people buy into. What if the new AI President decides that we will all be happier if we’re sedated, and then using executive powers makes it law? Forget checks and balances, since who else in government could win an argument against an all-knowing AI? How much power will the new AI President give to other algorithms, bots, and machines?

If we are willing to give up the process of purposeful work to make a living wage in exchange for a guaranteed income, to subordinate our decision-making to have “less to think about,” to abandon reality for a “good enough” simulation, and believe that this new AI will be free of the special interests who think they control it, then get ready for the future.

1. Leonhard, Gerd. Technology vs. Humanity: The Coming Clash between Man and Machine. p112, United Kingdom: Fast Future, 2016. Print.

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