Tag Archives: futurist

Of Threatcasting

Until a Google alert came through my email this week, I have to admit, I had never heard the term threatcasting. I clicked-in to an article in Slate that gave me the overview, and when I discovered that threatcasting is a blood-relative to guerrilla futures, I was more than intrigued. First, let’s bring you up to speed on threatcasting and then I will remind my readers about this guerrilla business.

The Slate article was written by futurist Brian David Johnson, formerly of Intel and now in residence at Arizona State University, and Natalie Vanatta a U.S. Army Cyber officer with a Ph.D. in applied mathematics currently researching in a military think tank. These folks are in the loop, and kudos to ASU for being a leader in bringing thought leaders, creators and technologists together to look at the future. According to the article, threatcasting is “… a conceptual process used to envision and plan for risks 10 years in the future.” If you know what my research focus is, then you know we are already on the same page. The two writers work with “Arizona State University’s Threatcasting Lab, whose mission is to use threatcasting to envision futures that empower actions.” The lab creates future scenarios that bring together “… experts in social science, technology, economics, cultural history, and other fields.” Their future scenarios have inspired companies like CISCO, through the Cisco Hyperinnovation Living Labs (CHILL), to create a two-day summit to look at countermeasures for threats to the Internet of Things. They also work with the “… U.S. Army Cyber Institute, a military think tank tasked to prepare for near-future challenges the Army will face in the digital domain.” The article continues:

“The threatcasting process might generate only negative visions if we stopped here. However, the group then use the science-fiction prototype to explore the factors and events that led to the threat. This helps them think more clearly how to disrupt, lessen, or recover from the potential threats. From this the group proposes short-term, actionable steps to implement today to nudge society away from potential threats.”

So, as I have already said, this is a very close cousin of my brand of design fiction. Where it differs is that it focuses on threats, the downsides and unintended consequences of many of the technologies that we take for granted. Of course, design fiction can do this as well, but design fiction has many flavors, and not all of them deal with future downsides.

Design fictions, however, are supposed to be provocations, and I am an advocate of the idea that tension creates the most successful provocations. We could paint utopian futures, a picture of what the world will be like should everything work out flawlessly, but that is not the essential ingredient of my brand of design fiction nor is it the real nature of things. However, my practice is not altogether dystopian either because our future will not likely be either
one or the other, but rather a combination that includes elements of both. I posit that our greatest possible impact will be to examine the errors that inevitably accompany progress and change. These don’t have to be apocalyptic. Sometimes they can be subtle and mundane. They creep up on us until one day we realize that we have changed.

As for guerrilla futures, this term comes from futurist and scholar, Stewart Candy. Here the idea is to insert the future
into the present “to expose publics to possibilities that they are unable or unwilling to give proper consideration. Whether or not they have asked for it.” All to raise awareness of the future, to discuss it and debate it in the present. My provocations are a bit more subtle and less nefarious than the threatcasting folks. Rather than terrorist attacks or hackers shutting down the power grid, I focus on the more nuanced possibilities of our techno-social future, things like ubiquitous surveillance, the loss of privacy, and our subtlely changing behaviors.

Nevertheless, I applaud this threatcasting business, and we need more of it, and there’s plenty of room for both of us.

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Corporate Sci-Fi.

Note: Also published on LinkedIn

 

Why your company needs to play in the future.

As a professor of design and a design fiction researcher, I write academic papers and blog weekly about the future. I teach about the future of design, and I create future scenarios, sometimes with my students, that provoke us to look at what we are doing, what we are making, why we are making it and the ramifications that are inevitable. Primarily I try to focus both designers and decision makers on the steps they can take today to keep from being blindsided tomorrow. Futurists seem to be all the rage these days telling us to prepare for the Singularity, autonomous everything, or that robots will take our jobs. Recently, Jennifer Doudna, co-inventor of the gene editing technique called CrisprCas9 has been making the rounds and sounding the alarm that technology is moving so fast that we aren’t going to be able to contain a host of unforeseen (and foreseen) circumstances inside Pandora’s box. This concern should be prevalent, however, beyond just the bioengineering fields and extend into virtually anywhere that technology is racing forward fueled by venture capital and the desperate need to stay on top of whatever space in which we are playing. There is a lot at stake. Technology has already redefined privacy, behavioral wellness, personal autonomy, healthcare, labor, and maybe even our humanness, just to name a few.

Several recent articles have highlighted the changing world of design and how the pressure is on designers to make user adoption more like user addiction to ensure the success of a product or app. The world of behavioral economics is becoming a new arena in which we are using algorithms to manipulate users. Some designers are passing the buck to the clients or corporations that employ them for the questionable ethics of addictive products; others feel compelled to step aside and work on less lucrative projects or apply their skills to social causes. Most really care and want to help. But designers are uniquely positioned and trained to tackle these wicked problems—if we would collaborate with them.

Beyond the companies that might be deliberately trying to manipulate us, are those that unknowingly, or at least unintentionally, transform our behaviors in ways that are potentially harmful. Traditionally, we seek to hold someone responsible when a product or service is faulty, the physician for malpractice, the designer or manufacturer when a toy causes injury, a garment falls apart, or an appliance self-destructs. But as we move toward systemic designs that are less physical and more emotional, behavioral, or biological, design faults may not be so easy to identify and their repercussions noticeable only after serious issues have arisen. In fact, we launch many of the apps and operating systems used today with admitted errors and bugs. Designers rely on real-life testing to identify problems, issue patches, revisions, and versions.

In the realm of nanotechnology, while scientists and thought leaders have proposed guidelines and best-practices, research and development teams in labs around the world race forward without regulation creating molecule-sized structures, machines, and substances with no idea whether they are safe or what might be long-term effects of exposure to these elements. In biotechnology, while folks like Jennifer Doudna appeal to a morally ethical cadre of researchers to tread carefully in the realm of genetic engineering (especially when it comes to inheritable gene manipulation) we do not universally share those morals and ethics. Recent headlines attest to the fact that some scientists are bent on moving forward regardless of the implications.

Some technologies such as our smartphones have become equally invasive technology, yet they are now considered mundane. In just ten years since the introduction of the iPhone, we have transformed behaviors, upended our modes of communication, redefined privacy, distracted our attentions, distorted reality and manipulated a predicted 2.3 billion users as of 2017. [1] It is worth contemplating that this disruption is not from a faulty product, but rather one that can only be considered wildly successful.

There are a plethora of additional technologies that are poised to refine our worlds yet again including artificial intelligence, ubiquitous surveillance, human augmentation, robotics, virtual, augmented and mixed reality and the pervasive Internet of Things. Many of these technologies make their way into our experiences through the promise of better living, medical breakthroughs, or a safer and more secure life. But too often we ignore the potential downsides, the unintended consequences, or the systemic ripple-effects that these technologies spawn. Why?

In many cases, we do not want to stand in the way of progress. In others, we believe that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages, yet this is the same thinking that has spawned some of our most complex and daunting systems, from nuclear weapons to air travel and the internal combustion engine. Each of these began with the best of intentions and, in many ways were as successful and initially beneficial as they could be. At the same time, they advanced and proliferated far more rapidly than we were prepared to accommodate. Dirty bombs are a reality we did not expect. The alluring efficiency with which we can fly from one city to another has nevertheless spawned a gnarly network of air traffic, baggage logistics, and anti-terrorism measures that are arguably more elaborate than getting an aircraft off the ground. Traffic, freeways, infrastructure, safety, and the drain on natural resources are complexities never imagined with the revolution of personal transportation. We didn’t see the entailments of success.

This is not always true. There have often been scientists and thought leaders who were waving the yellow flag of caution. I have written about how, “back in 1975, scientists and researchers got together at Asilomar because they saw the handwriting on the wall. They drew up a set of resolutions to make sure that one day the promise of Bioengineering (still a glimmer in their eyes) would not get out of hand.”[2] Indeed, researchers like Jennifer Doudna continue to carry the banner. A similar conference took place earlier this year to alert us to the potential dangers of technology and earlier this year another to put forth recommendations and guidelines to ensure that when machines are smarter than we are they carry on in a beneficent role. Too often, however, it is the scientists and visionaries who attend these conferences. [3] Noticeably absent, though not always, is corporate leadership.

Nevertheless, in this country, there remains no safeguarding regulation for nanotech, nor bioengineering, nor AI research. It is a free-for-all, and all of which could have massive disruption not only to our lifestyles but also our culture, our behavior, and our humanness. Who is responsible?

For nearly 40 years there has been an environmental movement that has spread globally. Good stewardship is a good idea. But it wasn’t until most corporations saw a way for it to make economic sense that they began to focus on it and then promote it as their contribution to society, their responsibility, and their civic duty. As well intentioned as they may be (and many are) much more are not paying attention to the effect of their technological achievements on our human condition.

We design most technologies with a combination of perceived user need and commercial potential. In many cases, these are coupled with more altruistic motivations such as a “do no harm” commitment to the environment and fair labor practices. As we move toward the capability to change ourselves in fundamental ways, are we also giving significant thought to the behaviors that we will engender by such innovations, or the resulting implications for society, culture, and the interconnectedness of everything?

Enter Humane Technology

Ultimately we will have to demand this level of thought, beginning with ourselves. But we should not fight this alone. Corporations concerned with appearing sensitive and proactive toward the environment and social justice need to add a new pillar to their edifice as responsible global citizens: humane technology.

Humane technology considers the socio-behavioral ramifications of products and services: digital dependencies, and addictions, job loss, genetic repercussions, the human impact from nanotechnologies, AI, and the Internet of Things.

To whom do we turn when a 14-year-old becomes addicted to her smartphone or obsessed with her social media popularity? We could condemn the parents for lack of supervision, but many of them are equally distracted. Who is responsible for the misuse of a drone to vandalize property or fire a gun or the anticipated 1 billion drones flying around by 2030? [4] Who will answer for the repercussions of artificial intelligence that spouts hate speech? Where will the buck stop when genetic profiling becomes a requirement for getting insured or getting a job?

While the backlash against these types of unintended consequences or unforeseen circumstances are not yet widespread and citizens have not taken to the streets in mass protests, behavioral and social changes like these may be imminent as a result of dozens of transformational technologies currently under development in labs and R&D departments across the globe. Who is looking at the unforeseen or the unintended? Who is paying attention and who is turning a blind eye?

It was possible to have anticipated texting and driving. It is possible to anticipate a host of horrific side effects from nanotechnology to both humans and the environment. It’s possible to tag the ever-present bad actor to any number of new technologies. It is possible to identify when the race to master artificial intelligence may be coming at the expense of making it safe or drawing the line. In fact, it is a marketing opportunity for corporate interests to take the lead and the leverage their efforts to preempt adverse side effects as a distinctive advantage.

Emphasizing humane technology is an automatic benefit for an ethical company, and for those more concerned with profit than ethics, (just between you and me) it offers the opportunity for a better brand image and (at least) the appearance of social concern. Whatever the motivation, we are looking at a future where we are either prepared for what happens next, or we are caught napping.

This responsibility should start with anticipatory methodologies that examine the social, cultural and behavioral ramifications, and unintended consequences of what we create. Designers and those trained in design research are excellent collaborators. My brand of design fiction is intended to take us into the future in an immersive and visceral way to provoke the necessary discussion and debate that anticipate the storm should there be one, but promising utopia is rarely the tinder to fuel a provocation. Design fiction embraces the art critical thinking and thought problems as a means of anticipating conflict and complexity before these become problems to be solved.

Ultimately we have to depart from the idea that technology will be the magic pill to solve the ills of humanity, design fiction, and other anticipatory methodologies can help to acknowledge our humanness and our propensity to foul things up. If we do not self-regulate, regulation will inevitably follow, probably spurred on by some unspeakable tragedy. There is an opportunity, now for the corporation to step up to the future with a responsible, thoughtful compassion for our humanity.

 

 

1. https://www.statista.com/statistics/330695/number-of-smartphone-users-worldwide/

2. http://theenvisionist.com/2017/08/04/now-2/

3. http://theenvisionist.com/2017/03/24/genius-panel-concerned/

4. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-08-31/world-of-drones-congress-brisbane-futurist-thomas-frey/8859008

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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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What now?

 

If you follow this blog, you know that I like to say that the rationale behind design fiction—provocations that get us to think about the future—is to ask, “What if?” now so that we don’t have to ask “What now?”, then. This is especially important as our technologies begin to meddle with the primal forces of nature, where we naively anoint ourselves as gods and blithely march forward—because we can.

The CRISPR-Cas9 technology caught my eye almost exactly two years ago from today through a WIRED article by Amy Maxmen. Then I wrote about it, as an awesomely powerful tool for astounding progress for the good of humanity while at the same time taking us down a slippery slope. A Maxmen stated,

“It could, at last, allow genetics researchers to conjure everything anyone has ever worried they would—designer babies, invasive mutants, species-specific bioweapons, and a dozen other apocalyptic sci-fi tropes.”

The article chronicles how, back in 1975, scientists and researchers got together at Asilomar because they saw the handwriting on the wall. They drew up a set of resolutions to make sure that one day the promise of Bioengineering (still a glimmer in their eyes) would not get out of hand.

43 years later, what was only a glimmer was now a reality. So, in 2015, some of these researchers came together again to discuss the implications of a new technique called CRISPR-Cas9. It was just a few years after Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier figured out the elegant tool for genome editing. Again from Maxmen,

“On June 28, 2012, Doudna’s team published its results in Science. In the paper and an earlier corresponding patent application, they suggest their technology could be a tool for genome engineering. It was elegant and cheap. A grad student could do it.”

In 2015 it was Doudna herself that called the meeting, this time in Napa, to discuss the ethical ramifications of Crispr. Their biggest concern was what they call germline modifications—the stuff that gets passed on from generation to generation, substantially changing the human forever. In September of 2015, Doudna gave a TED Talk asking the asks the scientific community to pause and discuss the ethics of this new tool before rushing in. On the heels of that, the US National Academy of Sciences said it would work on a set of ”recommendations“ for researchers and scientists to follow. No laws, just recommendations.

Fast forward to July 26, 2017. MIT Technology Review reported:

“The first known attempt at creating genetically modified human embryos in the United States has been carried out by a team of researchers in Portland, Oregon… Although none of the embryos were allowed to develop for more than a few days—and there was never any intention of implanting them into a womb—the experiments are a milestone on what may prove to be an inevitable journey toward the birth of the first genetically modified humans.”

MIT’s article was thin on details because the actual paper that delineated the experiment was not yet published. Then, this week, it was. This time it was, indeed, a germline objective.

“…because any genetically modified child would then pass the changes on to subsequent generations via their own germ cells—the egg and sperm.”(ibid).

All this was led by fringe researcher Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health and Science University, and WIRED was quick to provide more info, but in two different articles.

The first of these stories appeared last Friday and gave more specifics on Mitalipov than the actual experiment.

“the same guy who first cloned embryonic stem cells in humans. And came up with three-parent in-vitro fertilization. And moved his research on replacing defective mitochondria in human eggs to China when the NIH declined to fund his work. Throughout his career, Mitalipov has gleefully played the role of mad scientist, courting controversy all along the way (sic).”

In the second article, we discover what the mad scientist was trying to do. In essence, Mitalipov demonstrated a highly efficient replacement of mutated genes like MYBPC3, which is responsible for a heart condition called “hypertrophic cardiomyopathy that affects one in 500 people—the most common cause of sudden death among young athletes.” Highly efficient means that in 42 out of 58 attempts, the problem gene was removed and replaced with a normal one. Mitalipov believes that he can get this to 100%. This means that fixing genetic mutations can be done successfully and maybe even become routine in the near future. But WIRED points out that

“would require lengthy clinical trials—something a rider in the current Congressional Appropriations Act has explicitly forbidden the Food and Drug Administration from even considering.”

Ah, but this is not a problem for our fringe mad scientist.

“Mitalipov said he’d have no problem going elsewhere to run the tests, as he did previously with his three-person IVF work.”

Do w see a pattern here? One surprising thing that the study revealed was that,

“Of the 42 successfully corrected embryos, only one of them used the supplied template to make a normal strand of DNA. When Crispr cut out the paternal copy—the mutant one—it left behind a gap, ready to be rebuilt by the cell’s repair machinery. But instead of grabbing the normal template DNA that had been injected with the sperm and Crispr protein, 41 embryos borrowed the normal maternal copy of MYBPC3 to rebuild its gene.”

In other words, the cell said, thanks for your stinking code but we’ll handle this. It appears as though cellular repair may have a mission plan of its own. That’s the mysterious part that reminds us that there is still something miraculous going on here behind the scenes. Mitalipov thinks he and his team can force these arrogant cells to follow instructions.

So what now? With this we have more evidence that guidelines and recommendations, clear heads and cautionary voices are not enough to stop scientists and researchers on the fringe, governments with dubious ethics, or whoever else might want to give things a whirl.

That puts noble efforts like Asilomar in 1975, a similar conference some years ago on nanotechnology, and one earlier this year on Artificial Intelligence as simply that, noble efforts. Why do these conference occur in the first place? Because scientists are genuinely worried that we’re going to extinct ourselves if we aren’t careful. But technology is racing down the autobahn, folks and we can’t expect the people who stand to become billionaires from their discoveries to be the same people policing their actions.

And this is only one of the many transformative technologies that are looming on the horizon. While everyone is squawking about the Paris Accords, why don’t we marshall some of our righteous indignation and pull the world together to agree on some meaningful oversight of these technologies?

We’ve gone from “What if?” to  “What now?” Are we going to avoid, “Oh, shit!”

  1. https://www.wired.com/2015/07/crispr-dna-editing-2/?mbid=nl_72815

2. http://wp.me/p7yvqL-mt

3. https://www.technologyreview.com/s/608350/first-human-embryos-edited-in-us/?set=608342

4. https://www.wired.com/story/scientists-crispr-the-first-human-embryos-in-the-us-maybe/?mbid=social_twitter_onsiteshare

5. https://www.wired.com/story/first-us-crispr-edited-embryos-suggest-superbabies-wont-come-easy/?mbid=nl_8217_p9&CNDID=49614846

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The algorithms.

 

I am not a mathematician. Not even close. My son is a bit of a wiz when it comes to math but not the kind of math you do in your head. His particular mathematical gift only works when he sees the equations. Still, I’d take that. Calculators give me fits. So the idea that I might decipher or write a functioning algorithm (the kind a computer could use) is tantamount to me turning water into wine.

Algorithms are all the buzz these days because they are the functioning math behind artificial intelligence (AI). How is this? I will turn to Merriam-Webster online.

“: a procedure for solving a mathematical problem (as of finding the greatest common divisor) in a finite number of steps that frequently involves repetition of an operation; broadly: a step-by-step procedure for solving a problem or accomplishing some end especially by a computer a search algorithm.”

I’ll throw away the first part of that definition because I don’t understand it. The second part is more my speed: a step-by-step procedure for solving a problem. I get that. As a designer, I do that all the time. Visiting the HowStuffWorks website is even better for explaining the purpose of algorithms. Essentially, it is a way for a computer to do something. Of course, there are, as in most problems, more than one way to get from point A to point B, so computer programmers choose the best algorithm for the task.

What does an algorithm look like? Think of a flow chart or a decision tree. When you turn that into code (the language of computers) then it might look like the image below.

Turning an algorithm into code.

You may already know all this, but I didn’t. Not really. I use the term algorithm all the time to describe the technology and process behind AI, but it always helps me to break these ideas down to their parts.

With all that out of the way, this week on the Futurism.com website, there was an article that discussed Ray Kurzweil’s theory that our brains contain a master algorithm inside our neocortex. It is that algorithm that enables us to handle pattern recognition and all the vastly complex nuance that our brains process every day. Referencing Kurzweil, Futurism stated that,

“… the brain’s neocortex — that part of the brain that’s responsible for intelligent behavior — consists of roughly 300 million modules that recognize patterns. These modules are self-organized into hierarchies that turn simple patterns into complex concepts. Despite neuroscience advancing by leaps and bounds over the years, we still haven’t quite figured out how the neocortex works.”

But, according to Kurzweil, “these multiple modules ‘all have the same algorithm,’”

Presumably, when we figure that out, we will be able to create an AI that thinks like a human, or better than a human. Hold that thought.

On another part of the web was a story from FastCoDesign that asked the question, “What’s The Next Great Art Movement? Ask This Neural Network.” FastCo interviewed Ahmed Elgammal a researcher at Rutgers University who it is getting AI (using algorithms) to create masterpieces after studying all the major art movements through history and how they evolve. His objective is to have the AI come up with the next major art movement. The art is, well, not good art. How do I know? I create art, I’ve studied art, and I’ve even sold art, so I know more about art than I do, say math. The art that Elgammal’s AI generates is intriguing, but it lacks that certain something that tells you it’s art. I think it might be a human thing. It is still something you can recognize.

So if you are still holding on to that earlier thought about algorithms and how we are working to perfect them, we could make the leap that a better functioning AI might fool us at some point and we wouldn’t be able to tell human art from the AI variety. There are a lot of people working on these types of things, and there are billions of dollars going toward the research.

Now I’m going to ask a stupid question. Why do we need an AI to tell us what the next movement in art is or should be? Are humans defective in this area? Couldn’t we just wait and see or are we just too impatient? Perhaps we have grown tired of creating art. If you know, please share.

Not to take anything away from Ray Kurzweil, but I guess I could ask the same question of AI. I assume that we could use AI that is so far above our thinking that it can help us solve problems better than we could on our own. But, if that AI is thinking so far beyond us, I’m not sure whether it would help us create better solutions or whether we would simply abdicate thinking to the AI. There’s a real danger of that you know. Maybe thinking is overrated.

The question keeps coming up. Do we make things to help us flourish or do we make things because we can?

Ray Kurzweil: There’s a Blueprint for the Master Algorithm in Our Brains

 

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Autonomous Assumptions

I’m writing about a recent post from futurist Amy Webb. Amy is getting very political lately which is a real turn-off for me, but she still has her ear to the rail of the future, so I will try to be more tolerant. Amy carried a paragraph from an article entitled, “If you want to trust a robot, look at how it makes decisions” from The Conversation, an eclectic “academic rigor, journalistic flair” blog site. The author, Michael Fisher, a Professor of Computer Science, at the University of Liverpool, says,

“When we deal with another human, we can’t be sure what they will decide but we make assumptions based on what we think of them. We consider whether that person has lied to us in the past or has a record for making mistakes. But we can’t really be certain about any of our assumptions as the other person could still deceive us.

Our autonomous systems, on the other hand, are essentially controlled by software so if we can isolate the software that makes all the high-level decisions – those decisions that a human would have made – then we can analyse the detailed working of these programs. That’s not something you can or possibly ever could easily do with a human brain.”

Fisher thinks that might make autonomous systems more trustworthy than humans. He says that by software analysis we can be almost certain that the software that controls our systems will never make bad decisions.

There is a caveat.

“The environments in which such systems work are typically both complex and uncertain. So while accidents can still occur, we can at least be sure that the system always tries to avoid them… [and] we might well be able to prove that the robot never intentionally means to cause harm.”

That’s comforting. But OK, computers fly and land airplanes, they make big decisions about air traffic, they are driving cars with people in them, they control much of our power grid, and our missile defense, too. So why should we worry? It is a matter of definitions. We use terms when describing new technologies that clearly have different interpretations. How you define bad decisions? Fisher says,

“We are clearly moving on from technical questions towards philosophical and ethical questions about what behaviour we find acceptable and what ethical behaviour our robots should exhibit.”

If you have programmed an autonomous soldier to kill the enemy, is that ethical? Assuming that the Robocop can differentiate between good guys and bad guys, you have nevertheless opened the door to autonomous destruction. In the case of an autonomous soldier in the hands of a bad actor, you may be the enemy.

My point is this. It’s not necessarily the case that we understand how the software works and that it’s reliable, it may be more about who programmed the bot in the first place. In my graphic novel, The Lightstream Chronicles, there are no bad robots (I call them synths), but occasionally bad people get a hold of the good synths and make them do bad things. They call that twisting. It’s illegal, but of course, that doesn’t stop it. Criminals do it all the time.

You see, even in the future some things never change. In the words of Aldous Huxley,

“Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards.”

 

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Of autonomous machines.

 

Last week we talked about how converging technologies can sometimes yield unpredictable results. One of the most influential players in the development of new technology is DARPA and the defense industry. There is a lot of technological convergence going on in the world of defense. Let’s combine robotics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, bio-engineering, ubiquitous surveillance, social media, and predictive algorithms for starters. All of these technologies are advancing at an exponential pace. It’s difficult to take a snapshot of any one of them at a moment in time and predict where they might be tomorrow. When you start blending them the possibilities become downright chaotic. With each step, it is prudent to ask if there is any meaningful review. What are the ramifications for error as well as success? What are the possibilities for misuse? Who is minding the store? We can hope that there are answers to these questions that go beyond platitudes like, “Don’t stand in the way of progress.”, “Time is of the essence.”, or “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

No comment.

I bring this up after having seen some unclassified documents on Human Systems, and Autonomous Defense Systems (AKA autonomous weapons). (See a previous blog on this topic.) Links to these documents came from a crowd-funded “investigative journalist” Nafeez Ahmed, publishing on a website called INSURGE intelligence.

One of the documents entitled Human Systems Roadmap is a slide presentation given to the National Defense Industry Association (NDIA) conference last year. The list of agencies involved in that conference and the rest of the documents cited reads like an alphabet soup of military and defense organizations which most of us have never heard of. There are multiple components to the pitch, but one that stands out is “Autonomous Weapons Systems that can take action when needed.” Autonomous weapons are those that are capable of making the kill decision without human intervention. There is also, apparently some focused inquiry into “Social Network Research on New Threats… Text Analytics for Context and Event Prediction…” and “full spectrum social media analysis.” We could get all up in arms about this last feature, but recent incidents in places such as, Benghazi, Egypt, and Turkey had a social networking component that enabled extreme behavior to be quickly mobilized. In most cases, the result was a tragic loss of life. In addition to sharing photos of puppies, social media, it seems, is also good at organizing lynch mobs. We shouldn’t be surprised that governments would want to know how to predict such events in advance. The bigger question is how we should intercede and whether that decision should be made by a human being or a machine.

There are lots of other aspects and lots more documents cited in Ahmed’s lengthy albeit activistic report, but the idea here is that rapidly advancing technology is enabling considerations which were previously held to be science fiction or just impossible. Will we reach the point where these systems are fully operational before we reach the point where we know they are totally safe? It’s a problem when technology grows faster that policy, ethics or meaningful review. And it seems to me that it is always a problem when the race to make something work is more important than the understanding the ramifications if it does.

To be clear, I’m not one of those people who thinks that anything and everything that the military can conceive of is automatically wrong. We will never know how many catastrophes that our national defense services have averted by their vigilance and technological prowess. It should go without saying that the bad guys will get more sophisticated in their methods and tactics, and if we are unable to stay ahead of the game, then we will need to get used to the idea of catastrophe. When push comes to shove, I want the government to be there to protect me. That being said, I’m not convinced that the defense infrastructure (or any part of the tech sector for that matter) is as diligent to anticipate the repercussions of their creations as they are to get them functioning. Only individuals can insist on meaningful review.

Thoughts?

 

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Election lessons. Beware who you ignore.

It was election week here in America, but unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last eight months, you already know that. Not unlike the Brexit vote from earlier this year, a lot of people were genuinely surprised by the outcome. Perhaps most surprising to me is that the people who seem to be the most surprised are the people who claimed to know—for certain—that the outcome would be otherwise. Why do you suppose that is? There is a lot of finger-pointing and head-scratching going on but from what I’ve seen so far none of these so-called experts has a clue why they were wrong.

Most of them are blaming polls for their miscalculations. And it’s starting to look like their error came not in who they polled but who they thought irrelevant and ignored. Many in the media are in denial that their efforts to shape the election may have even fueled the fire for the underdog. What has become of American Journalism is shameful. Wikileaks proves that ninety percent of the media was kissing up to the left, with pre-approved interviews, stories and marching orders to “shape the narrative.” I don’t care who you were voting for, that kind of collusion is a disgrace for democracy. Call it Pravda. But I don’t want to turn this blog into a political commentary, but it was amusing to watch them all wearing the stupid hat on Wednesday morning. What I do want to talk about, however, is how we look at data to reach a conclusion.

In a morning-after article from the LinkedIn network, futurist Peter Diamandis posted the topic, “Here’s what election campaign marketing will look like in 2020.” It was less about the election and more about future tech with an occasional reference to the election and campaign processes. He has five predictions. First is, the news flash that “Social media will have continued to explode. [and that] The single most important factor influencing your voting decision is your social network.” Diamandis says that “162 million people log onto Facebook at least once a month.” I agree with the first part of his statement but what about the people the other 50% and those that don’t share their opinions on politics. A lot of pollsters are looking at the huge disparity in projections vs. actuals in the 2016 election. They are acknowledging that a lot of people simply weren’t forthcoming in pre-election polling. Those planning to vote Trump, for example, knew that Trump was a polarizing figure and they weren’t going to get into it with their friends on social media or even a stranger taking a poll. Then, I’m willing to bet that a lot of voters who put the election over the top are in the fifty percent that isn’t on social media. Just look at the demographics for social media.

Peter Diamandis is a brilliant guy, and I’m not here to pick on him. Many of his predictions are quite conceivable. Mostly he’s talking about an increase in data mining, and AI is getting better at learning from it, with a laser focus on the individual. If you add this together with programmable avatars, facial recognition improvements and the Internet of Things, the future means that we are all going to be tracked with increasing levels of detail. And though our face is probably not something we can keep secret, if it all creeps you out, remember that much of this is based on what we choose to share. Fortunately, it will take a little bit longer than 2020 for all of these new technologies to read our minds—so until then we still hold the cards. As long as you don’t share our most private thoughts on social media or with pollsters, you’ll keep them guessing.

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Defining [my] design fiction.

 

It’s tough to define something that still so new that, in practice, there is no prescribed method and dozens of interpretations. I met some designers at a recent conference in Trento, Italy that insist they invented the term in 1995, but most authorities attribute the origin to Bruce Sterling in his 2005 book, Shaping Things. The book was not about design fiction per se. Sterling’s is fond of creating neologisms, and this was one of those (like the term ‘spime’) that appeared in that book. It caught on. Sometime later Sterling sought to clarify it. And his most quoted definition is, “The deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change.” If you rattle that off to most people, they look at you glassy-eyed. Fortunately, in 2013, Sterling went into more detail.

“Deliberate use’ means that design fiction is something that people do with a purpose. ‘Diegetic’ is from film and theatre studies. A movie has a story, but it also has all the commentary, scene-setting, props, sets and gizmos to support that story. Design fiction doesn’t tell stories — instead, it designs prototypes that imply a changed world. Suspending disbelief’ means that design fiction has an ethics. Design fictions are fakes of a theatrical sort, but they’re not wicked frauds or hoaxes intended to rob or fool people. A design fiction is a creative act that puts the viewer into a different conceptual space — for a while. Then it lets him go. Design fiction has an audience, not victims. Finally, there’s the part about ‘change’. Awareness of change is what distinguishes design fictions from jokes about technology, such as over-complex Heath Robinson machines or Japanese chindogu (‘weird tool’) objects. Design fiction attacks the status quo and suggests clear ways in which life might become different.” (Sterling, 2013)

The above definition is the one on which I base most of my research. I’ve written on this before, such as what distinguishes it from science fiction, but I bring this up today because I frequently run into things that are not design fiction but are labeled thus. There are three non-negotiables for me. We’re talking about change, a critical eye on change and suspending disbelief.

Change
Part of the intent of design fiction is to get you to think about change. Things are going to change. It implies a future. I suppose it doesn’t mean that the fiction itself has to take place in the future, however, since we can’t go back in time, the only kind of change we’re going to encounter is the future variety. So, if the intent is to make us think, that thinking should have some redeeming benefit on the present to make us better prepared for the future. Such as, “Wow. That future sucks. Let’s not let that happen.” Or, “Careful with that future scenario, it could easily go awry.” Like that.

A critical eye on change.
There are probably a lot of practitioners who would disagree with me on this point. The human race has a proclivity for messing things up. We develop things often in advance of actually thinking about what they might mean for society, or an economy, or our health, our environment, or our behavior. We design way too much stuff just because we can and because it might make us rich if we do. We need to think more before we act. It means we need to take some responsibility for what we design. Looking into the future with a critical eye on how things could go wrong or just on how wrong they might be without us noticing is a crucial element in my interpretation of intent.

Suspending disbelief
As Sterling says, the objective here is not to fool you but to get close enough to a realistic scenario that you accept that it could happen. If it’s off-the-wall, WTF, conceptual art, absent of any plausible existence, or sheer fantasy, it misses the point. I’m sure there’s a place for those and no doubt a purpose, but call it something else, but not design fiction. It’s the same reason that Star Wars is not design fiction. There’s design and there’s fiction but different intent.

I didn’t intend to have this turn into a rant, and this may all seem to you like splitting hairs, but often these subtle differences are important so that we know what were studying and why.

The nice thing about blogs is that if you have a different opinion, you can share.

 

Sterling, B., 2013. Design Fiction: “Patently Untrue” by Bruce Sterling [WWW Document]. WIRED. URL http://www.wired.co.uk/magazine/archive/2013/10/play/patently-untrue (accessed 12.12.14).
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Who are you?

 

There have been a few articles in the recent datasphere have centered around the pervasive tracking of our online activity from the benign to those bordering on unethical. One was from FastCompany that highlighted some practices that web marketers use to track the folks that visit their sites. The article by Steve Melendez lists a handful of these. They include the basics like first party cookies, and A/B testing, to more invasive methods such as psychological testing (thanks, Facebook) third-party tracking cookies, and differential pricing. The cookie is, of course, the most basic. I use them on this site and on The Lightstream Chronicles to see if anyone is visiting, where they’re coming from and a bunch of other minutiae. Using Google Analytics, I can, for example, see what city or country my readers are coming from, age and sex, whether they are regulars or new visitors, whether they visit via mobile or desktop, Apple or Windows, and if they came to my site by way of referral, where did they originate. Then I know if my ads for the graphic novel are working. I find this harmless. I have no interest in knowing your sexual preference, where you shop, and above all, I’m not selling anything (at least not yet). I’m just looking for more eyeballs. More viewers mean that I’m not wasting my time and that somebody is paying attention. It’s interesting that a couple of months ago the EU internet authorities sent me a snippet of code that I was “required” to post on the LSC site alerting my visitors that I use cookies. Aside from they U.S., my highest viewership is from the UK. It’s interesting that they are aware that their citizens are visiting. Hmm.

I have software that allows me to A/B test which means I could change up something on the graphic novel homepage and see if it gets more reaction than a previous version. But, I barely have the time to publish a new blog or episode much less create different versions and test them. A one-man-show has its limitations.

The rest of the tracking methods highlighted in the above article require a lot of devious programming. Since I have my hands full with the basics, this stuff is way above my pay grade. Even if it wasn’t, I think it all goes a bit too far.

Personally, I deplore most internet advertising. I know that makes me a hypocrite since I use it from time to time to drive traffic to my site. I also realize that it is probably a necessary evil. Sites need revenue, or they can’t pump out the content on which we have come to rely. Unfortunately, the landscape often turns into a melee. Tumblr is a good example. Initially, they integrated their ads into the format of their posts. So as you are scrolling through the content, you see an ad within their signature brand presentation. Cool. Then they started doing separate in-line ads. These looked entirely different from their brand content, and the ads were those annoying things like “Grandma discovers the fountain of youth.” Not cool. Then they introduced this floating ad box that tracks you all the way down the page as you scroll through content. You get no break from it. It’s distracting, and based on the content, it can be horrifying, like Hillary Clinton staring at you for seven minutes. How much can a person take?

And it won't go away.
And it won’t go away.

Since my blog is future oriented, the question arises, what does this have to do with the future? It does. These marketing techniques will only become more sophisticated. Many of them already incorporate artificial intelligence to map your activity and predict your every want and need—maybe even the ones you didn’t think anyone knew you had. Is this an invasion of privacy? If it is, it’s going to get more invasive. And as I’m fond of saying, we need to pay attention to these technologies and practices, now or we won’t have a say in where they end up. As a society, we have to do better than just adapt to whatever comes along. We need to help point them in the right direction from the beginning.

 

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