Tag Archives: genetic engineering

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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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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Disruption. Part 1

 

We often associate the term disruption with a snag in our phone, internet or other infrastructure service, but there is a larger sense of the expression. Technological disruption refers the to phenomenon that occurs when innovation, “…significantly alters the way that businesses operate. A disruptive technology may force companies to alter the way that they approach their business, risk losing market share or risk becoming irrelevant.”1

Some track the idea as far back as Karl Marx who influenced economist Joseph Schumpeter to coin the term “creative destruction” in 1942.2 Schumpeter described that as the “process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.” But it was, “Clayton M. Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor, that described it’s current framework. “…a disruptive technology is a new emerging technology that unexpectedly displaces an established one.”3

OK, so much for the history lesson. How does this affect us? Historical examples of technological disruption go back to the railroads, and the mass produced automobile, technologies that changed the world. Today we can point to the Internet as possibly this century’s most transformative technology to date. However, we can’t ignore the smartphone, barely ten years old which has brought together a host of converging technologies substantially eliminating the need for the calculator, the dictaphone, land lines, the GPS box that you used to put on your dashboard, still and video cameras, and possibly your privacy. With the proliferation of apps within the smartphone platform, there are hundreds if not thousands of other “services” that now do work that we had previously done by other means. But hold on to your hat. Technological disruption is just getting started. For the next round, we will see an increasingly pervasive Internet of Things (IoT), advanced robotics, exponential growth in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning, ubiquitous Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR), Blockchain systems, precise genetic engineering, and advanced renewable energy systems. Some of these such as Blockchain Systems will have potentially cataclysmic effects on business. Widespread adoption of blockchain systems that enable digital money would eliminate the need for banks, credit card companies, and currency of all forms. How’s that for disruptive? Other innovations will just continue to transform us and our behaviors. Over the next few weeks, I will discuss some of these potential disruptions and their unique characteristics.

Do you have any you would like to add?

1 http://www.investopedia.com/terms/d/disruptive-technology.asp#ixzz4ZKwSDIbm

2 http://www.investopedia.com/terms/c/creativedestruction.asp

3 http://www.intelligenthq.com/technology/12-disruptive-technologies/

See also: Disruptive technologies: Catching the wave, Journal of Product Innovation Management, Volume 13, Issue 1, 1996, Pages 75-76, ISSN 0737-6782, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0737-6782(96)81091-5.
(http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0737678296810915)

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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.
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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/

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Cyberpunk decisions: to augment or not to augment

Page 28 comments

Introducing Techman: The Lightstream Chronicles‘ first real punk in this cyberpunk future. If you check out the character profile on Techman in the Cast section of the site you’ll see he’s an interesting dude. Back in the latter part of the 21st century, Techman was one of the first experiments in defying the aging gene — and one of the only survivors of that initial testing. He dropped off the grid rather than be a lab rat for the genetics companies. While Techman is chronologically 140 years old he opted out most of the rest of the typical trans-human augmentation, so he’s a bit overweight, prefers blue jeans, t-shirts and leather to bio-sensitive, morphing bodysuits. He still flies under the radar, is a bit paranoid, keeps a low profile and manages to make a living with collectors of antique technology and probably some contraband here and there. As you see on page 28, Techman is a bit of a throwback using such antiquated technology as biometric scanners. Also, in the final panel we see that he and Sean have some history as well as a strong friendship. Much more to come on that. Hope you like Techman’s hang out; lots of texture.

There's more about Techman on the Cast page.
There’s more about Techman on the Cast page.

Call for discussion. Have thoughts on the art, the story, or the flow of the book, cyberpunk, design fiction, cgi or anything else? I’d love to knead into a discussion. Feel free to comment.

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Why are the bodies so perfect in this graphic novel?

Now that the first chapter of the graphic novel is up at Kickstarter, this topic has surfaced a few times in conversation and in critique. “Why are the bodies so beautiful or so developed?” Usually, this kind of commentary is reserved for how women are often depicted in comics as overly voluptuous with images that pander to the stereotypical adolescent male reader. In the case of The Lightstream Chronicles, however there is no discrimination between males and females. All the men are just as muscularly perfected, and their body suits just as tight fitting as their female counterparts.

There is no obesity in the 22nd century, male or female.

There are actually numerous reasons for the choice of body style. First and probably most important is that it is story appropriate. The design fiction future of The Lightstream Chronicles has been built in equal parts, on what exists today, what is projected for tomorrow and then some healthy speculation. How we will behave and what will we wear when everybody has “the perfect body?” According to Barbara Cohen, PhD. (1984), “We are a culture nearly addicted to individual control and the notion seems to exist in our society that fatness means a loss of self-control – which is considered the ultimate moral failure in our culture, and perhaps the most frightening of all fears” (1). In the story narrative, through genetic engineering, and continuous monitoring and augmentation of body chemistry, the society of 2159 has enabled the sculpting of any body shape, musculature, and proportion, (in addition to gene splicing and species blending). Hence, the story contains a visual proliferation of ideal bodies as a direct result of technological advancements in medicine and body design. The plot then, serves to drive body exaggerations in this context and provides the opportunity to examine the perfect body phenomenon in the cultural context of the narrative.

Andrew Curry (2010) examines this idea in The 1910 Time Traveler, asking what a 1910 Edwardian might think of 21st century London. He thinks many of the technologies may well be conceivable. The bigger changes may be in the quality and realism of content, the disappearance of industry and cleaner air. “The bigger changes, though, would almost certainly be about values.” The society is more international, more politically civil, the role of women has changed dramatically, and then there is: “Casualness of dress and social etiquette generally: both Edwardian men and women tended to travel well covered up, even at the beach. In contrast, our informality of clothing, and the casualness of our language – even rudeness – along with the end of most visible signs of etiquette, would be a profound change… But there’s perhaps an underlying story here. When we think about long-term change with the benefit of hindsight, the things we think are unfathomable are usually the technology – planes, cars, computers. But it is at least as likely that the things that time travelers would most struggle with are the shifts in social values, which are almost invisible to us because we swim in them constantly and adapt ourselves to them as they change.”

If an Edwardian would be shocked at a 21st century bikini, I imagine that we would be equally aghast at body suits that show off every detail of the ideal physique.

There is also another, more subtle rationale as homage to the superhero genre. There are two aspects to this objective: 1.Dramatic effect. Comics historian R.C. Harvey (1996,35) calls to mind the name of Burne Hogarth who drew Tarzan for a period in the 1940s. Remarking on Hogarth’s unique and, “minute attention to musculature,” Harvey says, “This treatment gave dramatic emphasis to the actions being depicted: Hogarth’s character, their muscles shown in bold relief, appeared to strain with the effort of their endeavors. The effect was to add a visual intensity to the drama of the narrative” 2. Heightened realism. Detail in anatomy adds visual excitement. In discussing the artwork of comic artist Jack Kirby, Harvey, refers to his realistic style. “Realistic rendering helps make it all seem possible, and Kirby’s skillful deployment of the medium’s resources makes the action so exciting that we overlook the impossibilities. We can’t help concluding that super heroics are possible—but we must add, only in the comics” (40). To aficionados of the classic comic genre, as well as to game enthusiasts (who are certainly targeted consumers of the graphic novel) superhero depictions, with exaggerated anatomy and operatic movement are an expected part of the presentation.

Not that I hold a candle to Jack Kirby, but it’s the thought that counts.

 

Citations:

Cohen, Barbara A. Ph.D. (1984). The Psychology of Ideal Body Image as an Oppressive Force in the Lives of Women. Available: http://www.healingthehumanspirit.com/pages/body_img.htm. Last accessed 22 Oct 2012.

Curry, Andrew. http://thenextwavefutures.wordpress.com/2010/09/04/the-1910-time-traveller/

Harvey, Robert C., The Art of the Comic Book: An Aesthetic History. The University Press of Mississippi, 1996.

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