Tag Archives: human nature

Thought leaders and followers.

 

Next week, the World Future Society is having its annual conference. As a member, I really should be going, but I can’t make it this year. The future is a dicey place. There are people convinced that we can create a utopia, some are warning of dystopia, and the rest are settled somewhere in between. Based on promotional emails that I have received, one of the topics is “The Future of Evolution and Human Nature.” According to the promo,

“The mixed emotions and cognitive dissonance that occur inside each of us also scale upward into our social fabric: implicit bias against new perspectives, disdain for people who represent “other”, the fear of a new world that is not the same as it has always been, and the hopelessness that we cannot solve our problems. We know from experience that this negativity, hatred, fear, and hopelessness is not what it seems like on the surface: it is a reaction to change. And indeed we are experiencing a period of profound change.” There is a larger story of our evolution that extends well beyond the negativity and despair that feels so real to us today. It’s a story of redefining and building infrastructure around trust, hope and empathy. It’s a story of accelerating human imagination and leveraging it to create new and wondrous things.

It is a story of technological magic that will free us from scarcity and ensure a prosperous lifestyle for everyone, regardless of where they come from.”

Woah. I have to admit, this kind of talk that makes me uncomfortable. Are fear of a new world, negativity, hatred, and fear reactions to change? Will technosocial magic solve all our problems? This type of rhetoric sounds more like a movement than a conference that examines differing views on an important topic. It would seem to frame caution as fear and negativity, and then we throw in that hyperbole hatred. Does it sound like the beginning of an agenda with a framework that characterizes those who disagree as haters? I think it does. It’s a popular tactic.

These views do not by any means reflect the opinions of the entire WFS membership, but there is a significant contingent, such as the folks from Humanity+, which hold the belief that we can fix human evolution—even human nature—with technology. For me, this is treading into thorny territory.

What is human nature? Merriam-Webster online provides this definition:

“[…]the nature of humans; especially: the fundamental dispositions and traits of humans.” Presumably, we include good traits and bad traits. Will our discussions center on which features to fix and which to keep or enhance? Who will decide?

What about the human condition? Can we change this? Should we? According to Wikipedia,

“The human condition is “the characteristics, key events, and situations which compose the essentials of human existence, such as birth, growth, emotionality, aspiration, conflict, and mortality.” This is a very broad topic which has been and continues to be pondered and analyzed from many perspectives, including those of religion, philosophy, history, art, literature, anthropology, sociology, psychology, and biology.”

Clearly, there are a lot of different perspectives to be represented here. Do we honestly believe that technology will answer them all sufficiently? The theme of the upcoming WFS conference is “A Brighter Future IS Possible.” No doubt there will be a flurry of technosocial proposals presented there, and we should not put them aside as a bunch of fringe futurists. These voices are thought-leaders. They lead thinking. Are we thinking? Are we paying attention? If so, then it’s time to discuss and debate these issues, or others will decides without us.

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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.

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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
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Behind the scenes, The Lightstream Chronicles Episode 136

Episode 136

Clearly,  the Techman is out cold, probably has a whopping headache and some tingling extremities. No problem. Keiji-T has equipment for this. Rubbing his fingertips together, Keiji-T can emit a chemical odor akin to our current day smelling salts. Aromatherapy from the fingertips, however, is a standard feature built into most synths. As we saw back in season 3, Keiji was bragging about the various scents he could conjure up.

In 2159, pheromone implants are also a common human augmentation. A quick trip to the infusion store and you can pick up a nano-endocrine emitter (NEET) that you apply to the skin and it absorbs through the pores. The emitter synchs with your master chipset and can generate or regulate certain hormonal activity.  The most popular varieties are either axillary steroids or aliphatic acids that act as a potent attraction to the opposite sex or as enhancements to intimacy. There are many other options available including repellent scents, stimulants, and relaxants. They are also an optional feature for the enormously popular fingertip implants (luminous implants) that nearly everyone has. This option, however, is not available on earlier fingertip models like one’s that Techman uses.

You can read more about a host of 2159 technologies and augmentations by visiting the glossary part 1 or part 2.

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Why Kurzweil is probably right.

 

Some people tell me that I am a pessimist when it comes to technology. Maybe, but part of my job is troubleshooting the future before the future requires troubleshooting. As I have said many times before, I think there are some amazing technologies out there that sound promising and exciting. One that caught my attention this week is the voice interface operating system. If you saw the film Her,  then you know of that which I speak. For many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, it has been the Holy Grail for some time. A recent WIRED magazine article by David Pierce highlights some of the advancements that are on the cusp of being part of our everyday lives.

Pierce tells how in 1979 during a visit to Xerox PARC, Steve Jobs was blown away by something called a graphic user interface (GUI). Instantly, Jobs knew that the point, click and drag interface was for the masses.

One of the scientists in that Xerox PARC group was a guy named Ron Kaplan who tells Pierce that, “‘The GUI has topped out,’ Kaplan says. ‘It’s so overloaded now.’”

I guess I can relate. Certainly it is a challenge to remember the obscure keyboard commands for every program that you use. One of my mainstays, Autodesk Maya, has so many keyboard options that there is a whole separate interface of hotkeys and menus accessed by (another) keyboard command. Rarely, except for the basics like cut, paste, and delete are these commands or menus the same between software.

If there were a voice interface that could navigate these for you, (perhaps only when you’re stumped), it would be a great addition. But the digital entrepreneurs racing in this direction, according to Pierce are going much further. They are looking, “to create the best voice-based artificial-intelligence assistant in the world.”

The article mentions one such app called Hound. It not only answers questions faster than Siri but with remarkably less overt information. For example, you could ask two different questions about two different places and then ask, “How many miles between those two?”  It reads between the lines and fills in the gaps. If it could see, I’m guessing it could read a graphic novel and know what’s going on.

Apparently there are quite a few well-funded efforts racing in this direction.  As Pierce says,

“It’s a classic story of technological convergence: Advances in processing power, speech recognition, mobile connectivity, cloud computing, and neural networks have all surged to a critical mass at roughly the same time. These tools are finally good enough, cheap enough, and accessible enough to make the conversational interface real—and ubiquitous.”

That’s just one of the reasons why I think Kurzweil is probably right in his Law of Accelerating Returns. (You can read about it on Kurzweil’s site of read a previous blog – one of many). Convergence is the way technology leaps forward. Supporting technologies enable formerly impossible things to become suddenly possible.

Pierce goes on to talk about a gadget called Alexa, which is now a device known as  Amazon Echo, which uses something called Alexa Voice Service. The Echo is a, a black tube with flashing blue LEDs designed to sit in some central location in your space. There, it answers questions and assists in your everyday life. Pierce got to live with the beta version.

“In just the seven months between its initial beta launch and its public release in 2015, Alexa went from cute but infuriating to genuinely, consistently useful. I got to know it, and it got to know me… This gets at a deeper truth about conversational tech: You only discover its capabilities in the course of a personal relationship with it.”

Hence, part of developer’s challenge is making an engaging, likable, and maybe even charming assistant.

But Pierce closes the article with realization that such an agent is

“…only fully useful when it’s everywhere when it can get to know you in multiple contexts—learning your habits, your likes and dislikes, your routine and schedule. The way to get there is to have your AI colonize as many apps and devices as possible.”

So, this technology is coming and probably nearly here. It may well be remarkable and rewarding. I wouldn’t be doing my job, however if I didn’t ask about the emanating ripples and behaviors that will inevitably grow up around it. What will we give up? What will we lose before we realize it is gone? It is marvelous, but like it’s smart-phone cousin (or grandparent), it will change us. As we rush to embrace this, as we most likely will, we should think about this, too.

 

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Is it a human right to have everything you want? 

The CBC recently published an article online about a new breakthrough in vision improvement that could provide patients with 20/20 vision x3. Like cataract surgery today that removes an old yellowed lens from the eye and replaces it with a new, plastic optometric-correct lens, the inventor, an optometrist from British Columbia, says the 8-minute procedure will give recipients better than 20/20 vision for the rest of their lives no matter how old they are.

bionic-lens-20150518
Better than 20/20. Maybe it starts here.

As soon as clinical trials are complete and the regulatory hurdles are leaped the articles says the implant could be available in as early as two years. Let me be the first to say, “Sign me up!” I’ve had glasses for 20 years and just recently made the move to contacts. Both are a hassle, and the improvement is anything but consistent. Neither solution provides 24-hour correction, and you’re lucky to get 20/20. So, rationally speaking, it’s a major improvement in vision, convenience and probably your safety. On top of that, the CBC article concludes noting the inventor/optometrist has set up a foundation,

“…Which would donate money to organizations providing eye surgery in developing countries to improve people’s quality of life.

“Perfect eyesight should be a human right,” he says.”

Now I hate to break the poignancy of this moment, but it’s my job. Should perfect eyesight be a human right? How about perfect hearing, ideal body weight, genius IQ, super longevity, cranial Internet access, freedom from disease, illness, and perfect health? It’s hard to deny that any of these are good. If you follow my graphic novel, The Lightstream Chronicles, you know that society has indeed opted for all of it and more: enhanced mood control, faster learning, better sex, deeper sleep, freedom from anxiety, stress, worry, bad memories, and making stupid comments. They are all human rights, right? Or is it just human nature to have unlimited expectations and demand instant gratification? It begins with one implant (not unlike the first nip or tuck or a new tattoo) and then becomes an endless litany of new and improved. But if you posit the argument that these enhancements are desirable, then you are also acknowledging that the current state of humanness is not. Are our shortcomings, disappointments, pain, testing, and struggles to be jettisoned forever? Once we can control everything about ourselves that we don’t like, where will we stop? Will we be happier? Or will there alway be that extra thing that we simply must have. Perhaps this is the real definition of human nature: never satisfied.

G.K. Chesterton said, “Meaninglessness does not come from being weary of pain. Meaninglessness comes from being weary of pleasure.”

As I have written about before, all of this is a small section of a greater organism that is growing in technology. So as complicated as the whole idea of human augmentation is to think about, it’s much more complicated. While we cobble together new additions on the old house, there are technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) that will surpass our shortcomings better than our replacement part enhancements. If you haven’t read Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns, you should. We are rapidly approaching a time when the impossible will be possible and we will be staring at it slack-jawed and asking how we got here and why? It can paint a dismal picture, but it is a picture we should look at and study. These are the questions of our time.

And so, I create fictional scenarios, firmly convinced that the more disturbing and visceral this picture the more we will take notice and ask questions before blithely moving forward. This is where I see the heart of design fiction, speculative futures, and—I think the more powerful—experiential interventions. It will be something to talk about in a future blog.

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Season 4 begins. The plot thickens.

Each week I post a blog congruent with what is happening on The Lightstream Chronicles. Sometimes it is tightly related, other times it might be a bit of a stretch. At any rate, this week we are launching Season 4, and as is customary, we are starting out the season with a bit of context that can help to situate you more comfortably in 2014. That’s a stretch, I realize, but the more you understand about this world the more you are likely to relate to the story, the characters, and the drama.

That being said, we examine the idea of a space station, or in this case a space resort, tethered to earth by no less than a space elevator. Your first thought is science fiction fantasy, but not so fast. The idea of a space elevator actually dates back to the 19th century and a good deal of speculation has been done on how this might actually happen. The critical element that makes this plausible is carbon nanotubes; super strong, super light. Do your homework (ibid).

NVCinsert
Dream on.

 

 

Hence, in 2159 we have an orbiting space resort tethered to a space elevator. Hong Kong 2, though slightly outside of the equatorial ideal zone won the bid. It turns out that mathematical calculations can render almost any location acceptable for an elevator, though Hong Kong remains the only existing site. Plans are underway for Sri Lanka and Rio de Janeiro with new space resorts.

New Vega City could be compared with a 21st century cruise ship. In fact, it was a cruise line that made the initial investment in NVC. Not unlike 21st century cruise ships, passengers choose state rooms based on the view. There are beaches, wave pools, casinos, restaurants that serve non-rep food—the options are impressive. It remains one of the few experiences that rival the V.

Hope you enjoy the next four weeks of Season 4 Prologues and the rest of Season 4.

 

 

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More futurist predictions from The Lightstream Chronicles.

Last week I talked about the similarities between Faith Popcorn’s 2025 predictions and that many of these predictions were already included in The Lightstream Chronicles. Since TLSC takes place 134 years after Faith Popcorn’s predictions, a better term than predictions would probably be backstory. As I have written before, one of the reasons for choosing such a distant future is to allow for the dramatic improvements in artificial intelligence (AI). There is quite a debate on this in science fiction and in future studies: When will we break the true AI barrier? Some believe that we will leave our physical bodies behind and become one with the hive, a giant mind merger of shared thoughts and consciousness somewhere in the mid to late 21st century. Ray Kurzweil, and Martine Rothblatt would probably fall into this camp. Kurzweil believes that there is ample evidence to trust that exponential improvements in technology will make this possible. It appears as though Rothblatt is working on achieving this by what amounts to an accretion of your own data, thoughts, opinions, etc. over time producing what would be the ultimate Siri of yourself. The body it would seem is an afterthought, possibly unnecessary.

My scenarios hinge heavily on what I would call, my take on human nature. I think we like bodies. In fact, they obsess us. I can’t see us abandoning our physical selves for an enhanced neural connection to the Othernet, especially as we are on the verge of perfecting it, ridding it of disease, aging and disability. So enamored are we with bodies, we will insist that our robots be equally sleek and endowed.

And while many future predictions include a Singularity, where everything changes, an unrecognizable future ruled by AI, I think change will be more mundane. As I highlighted last week (and where Popcorn and I agree), I believe we will be heavily augmented. Here are some more:

  1. By nature of what I call endofacts, (implanted artifacts) we will become our own ultra-powerful computers. Our input output (I/O) will be built-in as in luminous implants; our user interface (UI) will be visible on our retinas.
Learning to use your new luminous implants. Click to enlarge.
Learning to use your new luminous implants.
  1. Our aging process cease with an outpatient procedure that stops telomere decay. 25-29 will be the preferred age for that.
  1. Because of the powerful transmission chips embedded in our chipset, we will be able to transmit thoughts and images from our mind or our vision to anyone, anywhere who is willing to receive it. It will be a lot like reading minds, but we will also have to invent brain-gate encryptions to keep others from hacking our thoughts. If you want to talk to me, (like a phone call) I have to give you permission.
  1. As with Popcorn, I believe that virtual reality will make physical travel less important, but I also believe it will rule the day. It will be the new drug with millions addicted to it as an escape from reality into their own programmable, perfect world. Once again, this is attributable to human nature. This, I believe, will be the biggest upheaval in the socio-techno future: the determination and separation of real from virtual.
  1. The Top City Spanner is the result of programmable architecture. It can replicate and rebuild itself based on our needs. It’s the same idea that nano technology promises but on a larger, life-size scale. The two technologies will merge.
  1. Replication is another big prediction. We will be replicating food and just about anything else by recreating its molecular structure. It will end starvation, food shortages and most farming.

There are a lot more if you drift through the pages of TLSC, which I encourage you to do.

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