Tag Archives: DNA

The end of code.

 

This week WIRED Magazine released their June issue announcing the end of code. That would mean that the ability to write code, as is so cherished in the job world right now, is on the way out. They attribute this tectonic shift to Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, neural networks and the like. In the future (which is taking place now) we won’t have to write code to tell computers what to do, we will just have to teach them. I have been over this before through a number of previous writings. An example: Facebook uses a form of machine learning by collecting data from millions of pictures that are posted on the social network. When someone loads a group photo and identifies the people in the shot, Facebook’s AI remembers it by logging the prime coordinates on a human face and attributing them to that name (aka facial recognition). If the same coordinates show up again in another post, Facebook identifies it as you. People load the data (on a massive scale), and the machine learns. By naming the person or persons in the photo, you have taught the machine.

The WIRED article makes some interesting connections about the evolution of our thinking concerning the mind, about learning, and how we have taken a circular route in our reasoning. In essence, the mind was once considered a black box; there was no way to figure it out, but you could condition responses, a la Pavlov’s Dog. That logic changes with cognitive science which is the idea that the brain is more like a computer. The computing analogy caught on, and researchers began to see the whole idea of thought, memory, and thinking as stuff you could code, or hack, just like a computer. Indeed, it is this reasoning that has led to the notion that DNA is, in fact, codable, hence splicing through Crispr. If it’s all just code, we can make anything. That was the thinking. Now there is machine learning and neural networks. You still code, but only to set up the structure by which the “thing” learns, but after that, it’s on its own. The result is fractal and not always predictable. You can’t go back in and hack the way it is learning because it has started to generate a private math—and we can’t make sense of it. In other words, it is a black box. We have, in effect, stymied ourselves.

There is an upside. To train a computer you used to have to learn how to code. Now you just teach it by showing or giving it repetitive information, something anyone can do, though, at this point, some do it better than others.

Always the troubleshooter, I wonder what happens when we—mystified at a “conclusion” or decision arrived at by the machine—can’t figure out how to make it stop arriving at that conclusion. You can do the math.

Do we just turn it off?

Bookmark and Share

Adapt or plan? Where do we go from here?

I just returned from Nottingham, UK where I presented a paper for Cumulus 16, In This Place. The paper was entitled Design Fiction: A Countermeasure For Technology Surprise. An Undergraduate Proposal. My argument hinged on the idea that students needed to start thinking about our technosocial future. Design fiction is my area of research, but if you were inclined to do so, you could probably choose a variant methodology to provoke discussion and debate about the future of design, what designers do, and their responsibility as creators of culture. In January, I had the opportunity to take an initial pass at such a class. The experiment was a different twist on a collaborative studio where students from the three traditional design specialties worked together on a defined problem. The emphasis was on collaboration rather than the outcome. Some students embraced this while others pushed back. The push-back came from students fixated on building a portfolio of “things” or “spaces” or “visual communications“ so that they could impress prospective employers. I can’t blame them for that. As educators, we have hammered the old paradigm of getting a job at Apple or Google, or (fill in the blank) as the ultimate goal of undergraduate education. But the paradigm is changing and the model of a designer as the maker of “stuff” is wearing thin.

A great little polemic from Cameron Tonkinwise recently appeared that helped to articulate this issue. He points the finger at interaction design scholars and asks why they are not writing about or critiquing “the current developments in the world of tech.” He wonders whether anyone is paying attention. As designers and computer scientists we are feeding a pipeline of more apps with minimal viability, with seemingly no regard for the consequences on social systems, and (one of my personal favorites) the behaviors we engender through our designs.

I tell my students that it is important to think about the future. The usual response is, “We do!” When I drill deeper, I find that their thoughts revolve around getting a job, making a living, finding a home, and a partner. They rarely include global warming, economic upheavals, feeding the world, natural disasters, etc. Why? These issues they view as beyond their control. We do not choose these things; they happen to us. Nevertheless, these are precisely the predicaments that need designers. I would argue these concerns are far more important than another app to count my calories or select the location for my next sandwich.

There is a host of others like Tonkinwise that see that design needs to refocus, but often it seems like there are are a greater number that blindly plod forward unaware of the futures they are creating. I’m not talking about refocusing designers to be better at business or programming languages; I’m talking about making designers more responsible for what they design. And like Tonkinwise, I agree that it needs to start with design educators.

Bookmark and Share

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
Bookmark and Share

A Science Fiction Graphic Novel About Design and the Human Condition

Page 100

We’ve reached page 100 and in some cases, The Lightstream Chronicles is already longer than many graphic novels. Nevertheless, as meaty as the author has worked it to be, there is so much more in the developing story. I was asked recently, “Where is it going?”

Expect some intrigue, angst and an action packed climax, but as with most science fiction and even design fiction, it is about people.

If you know anything about the author, you know that I’m a designer, heavily ensconced in research in the area of Design Fiction, Speculative Design, and Design Futures. The Lightstream Chronicles is a foray into a future world where we, like it or not, have been changed by the design and technology that we have embraced over the years. We are different. Our behaviors and expectations have changed. This is what design does to society and culture. Don’t get me wrong; it is not necessarily a bad thing. Design is a product of which we are as human beings. It is a reflection of humanity. Hence, it will reflect both bad and good, something that I believe is not a “fixable” tweak in our DNA. It is the essence of our design. In many respects, without it, we cease to be human. We have the choice between good and evil and depending on what we choose, our design and the various manifestations of it will reflect those choices.

As I wrote,

“In The Lightstream Chronicles, the author creates a science fiction graphic novel and asks that the reader ponder the same self-rationalizing tendency as it applies to slick new enhancing technologies and the “design” decisions that fostered them. It looks at not only the option to make the decision, but the ethics of whether the decision should be made, as well as society’s competency to choose wisely.1”

Perhaps then, it becomes a graphic novel about the human condition. In a way then, it is like most fiction, but it is that and more. It also examines where we find meaning, especially when most of what we would consider our greatest fears—of death, disease, physical or mental decline, of enough food and water, sustaining the environment or having enough energy—have vanished. Is it enough to satisfy us, to fulfill us, and give us meaning or does it leave us wanting?

The only thing that seems to have survived the grasp of man and his ability to wipe it away is evil. The perfection of synthetic humans would seem to be the answer, though even then, man has found a way to twist them. And if we become the creators are not our creations still made in our image?

What do you think?

 

1.Denison, E. Scott. When Designers Ask, “What If?”. Electronic MFA Thesis. Ohio State University, 2013. OhioLINK Electronic Theses and Dissertations Center.
Bookmark and Share

Who is paying attention to the future? You’re standing in it. 

If you are familiar with this blog you can that tell that I am enamored of future tech, but at the same time my research in design fiction often is intended to provoke discussion and debate on whether these future technologies are really as wonderful as they are painted to be. Recently, I stumbled across a 2012 article from the Atlantic.com (recommended) magazine (Hessel and Goodman) that painted a potentially alarming picture of the future of biotech or synthetic biology, known as synbio. The article is lengthy, and their two-year-old predictions have already been surpassed, but it first reminds us of how technology, historically and currently, builds not in a linear progression, but exponentially like Moore’s Law. This is an oft quoted precept of Ray Kurzweil, chief futurist for Google and all around genius guy, for the reason that we are avalanching toward the Singularity. The logic of exponential growth in technology is pretty much undeniable at this point.

Hessel and Goodman take us through a bit of verbal design fiction where in the very near future it will be possible to create new DNA mathematically, to create new strains of bacteria, and new forms of life for good and for not so good. The article also underscores for me how technology is expanding beyond any hope of regulatory control, ethical considerations or legal ramifications. No one has time to consider the abuse of “good technology” or the unintended consequences that inevitably follow from any new idea.  If you are one of those people who, in an attempt to get through all the things you have to read by taking in only the intro and the conclusion. Here is a good take away from the article:

“The historical trend is clear: Whenever novel technologies enter the market, illegitimate uses quickly follow legitimate ones. A black market soon appears. Thus, just as criminals and terrorists have exploited many other forms of technology, they will surely soon turn to synthetic biology, the latest digital frontier.”

If you want to know how they dare make that assertion you will have to read the article and it is not a stretch. The unintended consequences are staggering to say the least.

Of course, these authors are only dealing with one of dozens if not hundreds of new technologies that because of the exponential rate of advancement are hanging over us like a canopy filling with water. Sooner or later, preferably sooner, we will —all of us—demand to bring these ideas into collaborative discussion.

In addition to my research, I write fiction. Call it science fiction or design fiction. It doesn’t matter to me. As dystopic as The Lightstream Chronicles may seem to my readers, in many ways I think that humanity will be lucky to live that long—unless we get a handle on what we’re doing now.

Some links for the incredulous:

http://www.genome.gov/sequencingcosts/

http://www.genewiz.com/index.aspx

http://mashable.com/2013/05/15/personal-genetics-resources/

Bookmark and Share

6 everyday things that have disappeared in the 22nd century.

As you know, The Lightstream Chronicles is a cyberpunk graphic novel set in the year 2159. A lot has changed. Last week we looked at 10 futuristic technologies that are more or less ubiquitous in that time. This week we’ll look at 5 things that have nearly disappeared.

1. Death

In the 22nd century, death is optional. Medicine has eliminated nearly all forms of disease see (#6) and genetics has isolated the gene that causes aging. The aging gene can be switched on and off (usually in a human’s 2nd decade), through a simple medical procedure. Living forever is not for everyone, however. The suicide rate in New Asia is extremely high. Apparently, after a hundred years some people actually get bored with it all. Taking a dive off the Top City Spanner or jumping in front of a mag lev train are the most popular methods of suicide. Some humans can choose natural death over an unlimited lifespan. They are known as agers. They may take advantage of replacement organs, or other enhancements but avoid the genetic tinkering to stop the aging process. Average life expectancy of an ager is around 148 years. Despite the most popular enhancements, agers often find themselves as social oddities.

2. Religion

As the result of a brief, but bloody war executed by drones and initiated from rivalries in the Middle East (known as the Drone Wars), millions died. Religion and politics were blamed but politics survived. Religious assembly became illegal and all faiths were included, and while individuals are permitted to believe or worship anything they want, it must be kept private; no evangelizing or congregating is permitted. An individual can still visit a priest, mullah, or rabbi but it must be one-on-one. When it comes to morality, (that could be item number 7 in this list) the government has had to legislate to stave off a widespread moral decay. For more than 60 years the ban on religion has been tightly monitored, however in the last few years it has not been as rigidly enforced. Those who practice their faith in private are “tagged” as such in their profiles and they tend to come under more scrutiny than non-religious. The government knows everything.

3. Privacy

This brings us to privacy. I’ve written extensively about the Mesh network that sees everything. It was developed as a deterrent to crime and is quite successful at that most of the time. The network enables “impartial” software to monitor anything that constitutes “suspicious” activity. What constitutes suspicious activity? The law of the land is contained in the multi-volume, Hong Kong Protocols where most of what is considered illegal is that which infringes on the rights of another. Therefore, almost anything that is individual, or consensual is within the law. For the system to work, however, it needs to see everything. Most of the public has grown accustomed to the idea that every waking and sleeping moment of their lives, including their thoughts can be, and is monitored. According to recent polls, the public takes comfort in government assurance that no humans are interpreting their activity, and hence, not making any judgments on their behavior no matter how bizarre.

4. Reality

Reality has taken a big hit. Most of the population spends dozens of hours a week living in their minds via the V, (virtual immersions). These programmed immersions are infinitely detailed, environmental and sensory simulations. When you’re in the V, there is no discernible difference from the real world. Participation can occur with the users identity, or by assuming another from limitless combinations of gender, race, and species, and may entail a full range of experiences from a simple day on the beach to the aberrant and perverse. Immersions are highly regulated by the New Asia government. Certain immersive programs are required to have timeout algorithms to prevent a condition known as OB state in which the mind is unable to re-adjust to reality and surface from the immersion, a side effect for individuals who are immersed for more than 24 hours. Certain content is age-restricted and users must receive annual mental and bio statistical fitness assessments to renew their access — all of which is monitored by the government.

And if that isn’t enough to jog your faith in what is real, another departure comes in the area of all things replicated. Replication of inanimate objects is widespread for food, beverages and hard goods. Many insist that there is a difference between a real and replicated apple, thus, “pure-stuffs” are still sold but they are very expensive and scarce. Replication is based on duplicating molecular “fingerprints” of actual objects. With the escalating population and less people dying, replication has saved the world from starvation.
5. Humans

Though this might also fall under the category of reality check, #4  is the lack of real humans; in the technical sense, they very hard to find. For a time, the word post-human, or transhuman was in vogue, but this dissipated. Now the only discernible difference between humans and synthetics seems to be DNA. Everyone is enhanced to some degree. Enhancement itself, has come to mean, “…considerable intervention… beyond the basic human faculties and senses…” There are a host of human enhancements, and nano-level implants that have become common place mostly to adjust brain function and regulate body chemistry; spike adrenalin, induce sleep, reduce stress, enhance sexual activity, release pheromones, communicate telepathically, enhance athletics, muscle tone, elimination of excess fat, etc. Everyone can have the body they want, including more fingers, toes, or other innovative additions, and if it isn’t available from their own DNA, it can be spliced in the lab to enable the growth of fur, a tail, or other combinations.

6. Disease and illness

Though many diseases in the 21st century were thought to be genetic in origin, medicine turned its focus to the cellular level. This provided the cancer breakthrough and eventually almost anything that can wreak havoc on the human body, particularly at the cellular level, has been brought under control. This includes cancer, neurological, and muscle diseases, organ failures, and old age. Then genetic engineering fine-tuned the genome to enable zero-defect births and isolated the genes that cause aging.

Since most cellular damage is done through abuse and environmental toxins many people may still choose to smoke, or put other damaging substances into their bodies with the assurance that diseased lungs, livers and kidneys can be grown in the lab from their own DNA and replaced on an outpatient basis.

Taxes are still collected.

 

Bookmark and Share