How should we talk about the future?

 

Imagine that there are two camps. One camp holds high confidence that the future will be manifestly bright and promising in all aspects of human endeavor. Our health will dramatically improve as we eradicate disease and possibly even death. Artificial Intelligence will be at our beck and call to make our tough decisions, order our lives, fight our wars, watch over us, and keep us safe. Hence, it is full speed ahead. The positives outweigh the negatives. Any missteps will be but a minor hiccup, and we’ll cross those bridges when we come to them.

The second camp believes that many of these promises are achievable. But they also believe that we are beginning to see strong evidence that technology is indeed moving exponentially and that we are at a trajectory point in the curve that where will see what many experts have categorized as impossible or a “long way off” now is knocking at our door.

Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns, is proving remarkably accurate. Sure we adapted from the horse and buggy to the automobile, and from there to air travel, to an irritatingly resilient nuclear threat, to computers, and smartphones and DNA sequencing. But these changes are arriving more rapidly than their predecessors.

“‘As exponential growth continues to accelerate into the first half of the twenty-first century,’ [Kurzweil] writes. ‘It will appear to explode into infinity, at least from the limited and linear perspective of contemporary humans.’”1

The second camp sees this rapid-fire proliferation as alarming. Not because we will get to utopia faster, but because we will be standing in the midst of a host of disruptive technologies all coming to fruition at the same time without the benefit of meaningful oversight or the engagement of our societies.

I am in the second camp.

Last week, I talked about genetic engineering. The designer-baby question was always pushed aside as a long way off. Not anymore. That’s just one change. Our privacy, in the form of “big data,” from seemingly innocent pastimes such as Facebook, is being severely compromised. According to security technologist Bruce Schneier,

“Facebook can predict race, personality, sexual orientation, political ideology, relationship status, and drug use on the basis of Like clicks alone. The company knows you’re engaged before you announce it, and gay before you come out—and its postings may reveal that to other people without your knowledge or permission. Depending on the country you live in, that could merely be a major personal embarrassment—or it could get you killed.”

Facebook is just one of the seemingly benign things we do every day. By now, most of us consider that using our smartphones 75 percent of our day is also harmless, though we would also have to agree that it has changed us personally, behaviorally, and societally. And while the societal outcry against designer babies has been noticeable since last weeks stories about CrisprCas9 gene splicing with human embryos, how long will it be before we accept it as the norm, and feel pressure in our own families to participate to stay competitive, or maybe even just to be insured.

The fact is that we like to think that we can adapt to anything. To some extent, we pride ourselves on this resilience. Unfortunately, that seems to suggest that we are also powerless to affect these technologies and that we have no say in when, if, or whether we should make them in the first place. Should we be proud of the fact that we are adapting to a complete lack of privacy, to the likelihood of terrorism or being replaced by an AI? These are my questions.

So I am encouraged when others also raise these questions. Recently, the tech media which seems to be perpetually enamored of folks like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk, called Zuckerberg a “bad futurist” because of his over optimistic view of the future.

The article came from the Huffington post’s Rebecca Searles.
According to Searles,

“Elon Musk’s doomsday AI predictions aren’t “irresponsible,” but Mark Zuckerberg’s techno-optimism is.”3

According to a Zuckerberg podcast,

“…people who are arguing for slowing down the process of
building AI, I just find that really questionable… If you’re arguing against AI, then you’re arguing against safer cars that aren’t going to have accidents and you’re arguing against being able to better diagnose people when they’re sick.”3

Technology hawks are always promising safer, and healthier as their rationale for unimpeded acceleration. I’m sure that’s the rah-rah rationale for designer babies, too. Think of all the illnesses we will be able to breed out of the human race. Searles and I agree that negative outcomes deserve equally serious consideration as well, and not after they happen. As she aptly puts it,

“Tackling tech challenges with a build-it-and-see-what-happens approach (a la Zuckerberg’s former “move fast and break things” development mantra) just isn’t suitable for AI.”

The problem is, that Zuckerberg is not alone, nor is last weeks
Shoukhrat Mitalipov. Ultimately, this reality of two camps is the rationale behind my approach to design fiction. As you know, the objective of design fiction is to provoke. Promising utopia is rarely the tinder to fuel a provocation.

Let’s remember Charles Dickens’ story of Ebenezer Scrooge. The ghost of Christmas past takes him back in time where, for the first time, he sees the truth about his past. But this revelation does not change him. Then the ghost of Christmas present opens his eyes to everything around him that he is blind to in the present. Still, Scrooge is unaffected. And finally, the ghost of Christmas future takes him into the future, and it is here that Scrooge sees the days to come as “the way it will be” unless he changes something now.

Somehow, I think the outcome would have been different if that last ghost said, ”Don’t worry. You’ll adapt.”

Let’s not talk about the future in purely utopian terms nor total doom-and-gloom. The future will not be like one or the other any more than is the present day. But let us not be blind to our infinite capacity to foul things up, to the potential of bad actors or the inevitability of unanticipated consequences. If we have any hope of meeting our future with the altruistic image of a utopian society, let us go forward with eyes open.

 

1. http://www.businessinsider.com/ray-kurzweil-law-of-accelerating-returns-2015-5

2. “Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World”

3. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/mark-zuckerberg-is-a-bad-futurist_us_5979295ae4b09982b73761f0

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