Tag Archives: nanotechnology

Heady stuff.

Last week we talked about how some researchers and scientists on the cutting edge are devising guidelines to attempt to ensure that potentially transformative technologies (like AI) remain safe and beneficial, rather than becoming a threat to humanity. And then, there were industries (like nanotech) that have already blown past any attempt at a meaningful review and now exist in thousands of consumer products, and nobody knows if their safe and the companies who produce them don’t even have to tell us they are part of the composition.

This week I’m going to talk about why I look askance at transformative technologies. Maybe it is because I am a writer at heart. Fiction, specifically science fiction, has captured my attention since childhood. It is my genre of choice. Now that nearly all of the science-based science fiction is no longer fiction, our tendency is to think that the only thing left to do is react or adapt. I can understand this since you can’t isolate a single technology as a thing, you can’t identify precisely from where it started, or how it morphed into what it is. Technologies converge, and they become systems, and systems are dauntingly complex. As humans, we create things that become systems. Even in non-digital times, the railroad ushered in a vastly complex system so much so that we had to invent other things just to deal with it, like a clock. What good was a train if it wasn’t on time? And what good was your time if it wasn’t the same as my time?

Fast forward. Does the clock have any behavioral effect in your life?

My oft-quoted scholars at ASU, Allenby, and Sarewitz see things like trains as level one technologies. They spawn systems in the level two realm that are often far more intricate than figuring out how to get this train contraption to run on rails across the United States.

So the nature of convergence and the resulting complexity of systems is one reason for my wariness of transformative tech.Especially now, that we are building things and we don’t understand how they work. We are inventing things that don’t need us to teach them, and that means that we can’t be sure what they are learning or how. If we can barely understand the complexity of the system that has grown up around the airline industry (which we at one time inherently grasped), how are we going to understand systems that spring up around these inventions that, at the core, we know what they do, but don’t know how?

The second reason is human nature. Your basic web dictionary defines the sociology of human nature as: “[…]the character of human conduct, generally regarded as produced by living in primary groups.” Appreciating things like love and compassion, music and art, consciousness, thought, languages and memory are characteristics of human nature. So are evil and vice, violence and hatred, the quest for power and greed. The latter have a tendency to undermine our inventions for good. Sometimes they are our downfall.

With history as our teacher, if we go blindly forward paying little attention to reason one, the complexity of systems, or reason two, the potential for bad actors, or both, that does not bode well.

I’ve been rambling a bit, so I have to wrap this up. I’ve taken a long way around to say that if you are among those who look at all this tech, and the unimaginable scope of the systems we have created and that the only thing left to do is react or adapt, that this is not the case.

While I can see the dark cloud behind every silver lining, it enables me to bring an umbrella on occasion.

Paying attention to the seemingly benign and insisting on a meaningful review of that which we don’t fully understand is the first step. It may seem as though it will be easier to adapt, but I don’t think so.

I guess that’s the reason behind this blog, behind my graphic novel, and my ongoing research and activism through design fiction. If you’re not paying attention, then I’ll remind you.

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The right thing to do. Remember that idea?

I’ve been detecting some blowback recently regarding all the attention surrounding emerging AI, it’s near-term effect on jobs, and it’s long-term impact on humanity. Having an anticipatory mindset toward artificial intelligence is just the logical thing to do. As I have said before, designing a car without a braking system would be foolish. Anticipating the eventuality that you might need to slow down or stop the car is just good design. Nevertheless, there are a lot of people, important people in positions of power that think this is a lot of hooey. They must think that human ingenuity will address any unforeseen circumstances, that science is always benevolent, that stuff like AI is “a long way off,” that the benefits outweigh the downsides, and that all people are basically good. Disappointed I am that this includes our Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. WIRED carried the story and so did my go-to futurist Amy Webb. In her newsletter Amy states,

“When asked about the future of artificial intelligence, automation and the workforce at an Axios event, this was Mnuchin’s reply: ‘It’s not even on our radar screen,’ he said, adding that significant workforce disruption due to AI is ‘50 to 100’ years away. ‘I’m not worried at all’”

Sigh! I don’t care what side of the aisle you’re on, that’s just plain naive. Turning a blind eye to potentially transformative technologies is also dangerous. Others are skeptical of any regulation (perhaps rightly so) that stifles innovation and progress. But safeguards and guidelines are not that. They are well-considered recommendations that are designed to protect while facilitating research and exploration. On the other side of the coin, they are also not laws, which means that if you don’t want to or don’t care to, you don’t have to follow them.

Nevertheless, I was pleased to see a relatively comprehensive set of AI principles that emerged from the Asilomar Conference that I blogged about a couple of weeks ago. The 2017 Asilomar conference organized by The Future of Life Institute,

“…brought together an amazing group of AI researchers from academia and industry, and thought leaders in economics, law, ethics, and philosophy for five days dedicated to beneficial AI.”

The gathering generated the Asilomar AI Principles, a remarkable first step on the eve of an awesome technological power. None of these people, from the panel I highlighted in the last blog, are anxious for regulation, but at the same time, they are aware of the enormous potential for bad actors to undermine whatever beneficial aspects of the technology might surface. Despite my misgivings, an AGI is inevitable. Someone is going to build it, and someone else will find a way to misuse it.

There are plenty more technologies that pose questions. One is nanotechnology. Unlike AI, Hollywood doesn’t spend much time painting nanotechnological dystopias, perhaps that along with the fact that they’re invisible to the naked eye, lets the little critters slip under the radar. While researching a paper for another purpose, I decided to look into nanotechnology to see what kinds of safeguards and guidelines are in place to deal with that rapidly emerging technology. There are clearly best practices by reputable researchers, scientists, and R&D departments but it was especially disturbing to find out that none of these are mandates. Especially since there are thousands of consumer products that use nanotechnology including food, cosmetics, clothing, electronics, and more. A nanometer is very small. Nanotech concerns itself with creations that exist in the 100nm range and below, roughly 7,500 times smaller than a human hair. In the Moore’s Law race, nanothings are the next frontier in cramming data onto a computer chip, or implanting them into our brains or living cells. However, due to their size, nanoparticles can also be inhaled, absorbed into the skin, flushed into the water supply and leeched into the soil. We don’t know what happens if we aggregate a large number of nanoparticles or differing combinations of nanoparticles in our body. We don’t even know how to test for it. And, get ready. Currently, there are no regulations. That means manufacturers do not need to disclose it, and there are no laws to protect the people who work with it. Herein, we have a classic example of bad decisions in the present that make for worse futures. Imagine the opposite: Anticipation of what could go wrong and sound industry intervention at a scale that pre-empts government intervention or the dystopian scenarios that the naysayers claim are impossible.

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But nobody knows what better is.

South by Southwest, otherwise known as SXSW calls itself a film and music festival and interactive media conference. It’s held every spring in Austin, Texas. Other than maybe the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show or San Diego’s ComicCon, I can’t think of many conferences that generate as much buzz as SXSW. This year it is no different. I will have blog fodder for weeks. Though I can’t speak to the film or music side, I’m sure they were scintillating. Under the category of interactive, most of the buzz is about technology in general, as tech gurus and futurists are always in attendance along with celebs who align themselves to the future.

Once again at SXSW, Ray Kurzweil was on stage. In my blogs, Kurzweil is probably the one guy I quote the most throughout this blog. So here we go again. Two tech sites caught my eye they week, reporting on Kurzweil’s latest prediction that moves up the date of the Singularity from 2045 to 2029; that’s 12 years away. Since we are enmeshed in the world of exponentially accelerating technology, I have encouraged my students to start wrapping their heads around the idea of exponential growth. In our most recent project, it was a struggle just to embrace the idea of how in only seven years we could see transformational change. If Kurzweil is right about his latest prognostication, then 12 years could be a real stunner. In case you are visiting this blog for the first time, the Singularity to which Kurzweil refers is, acknowledged as the point at which computer intelligence exceeds that of human intelligence; it will know more, anticipate more, and analyze more than any human capability. Nick Bostrom calls it the last invention we will ever need to make. We’ve already seen this to some extent with IBM’s Watson beating the pants off a couple of Jeopardy masters and Google’s DeepMind handily beat a Go genius at a game that most thought to be too complex for a computer to handle. Some refer to this “computer” as a superintelligence, and warn that we better be designing the braking mechanism in tandem with the engine, or this smarter-than-us computer may outsmart us in unfortunate ways.

In an article in Scientific American, Northwestern University psychology professor Paul Weber says we are bombarded each day with about 2.5 exabytes of data and that the human brain can only store an estimated 2.5 petabytes (a million gigabytes). Of course, the bombardment will continue to increase. Another voice that emerges in this discussion is Rob High IBM’s vice president and chief technology officer. According to the futurism tech blog, High was part of a panel discussion at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) SciTech Conference 2017. High said,

“…we have a very desperate need for cognitive computing…The information being produced is far surpassing our ability to consume and make use of…”

On the surface, this seems like a compelling argument for faster, more pervasive computing. But since it is my mission to question otherwise compelling arguments, I want to ask whether we actually need to process 2.5 exabytes of information? It would appear that our existing technology has already turned on the firehose of data (Did we give it permission?) and now it’s up to us to find a way to drink from the firehose. To me, it sounds like we need a regulator, not a bigger gullet. I have observed that the traditional argument in favor of more, better, faster often comes wrapped in the package of help for humankind.

Rob High, again from the futurism article, says,

“‘If you’re a doctor and you’re trying to figure out the best way to treat your patient, you don’t have the time to go read the latest literature and apply that knowledge to that decision’ High explained. ‘In any scenario, we can’t possibly find and remember everything.’ This is all good news, according to High. We need AI systems that can assist us in what we do, particularly in processing all the information we are exposed to on a regular basis — data that’s bound to even grow exponentially in the next couple of years.’”

From another futurism article, Kurzweil uses a similar logic:

“We’re going to be able to meet the physical needs of all humans. We’re going to expand our minds and exemplify these artistic qualities that we value.”

The other rationale that almost always becomes coupled with expanding our minds is that we will be “better.” No one, however, defines what better is. You could be a better jerk. You could be a better rapist or terrorist or megalomaniac. What are we missing exactly, that we have to be smarter, or that Bach, or Mozart are suddenly inferior? Is our quality of life that impoverished? And for those who are impoverished, how does this help them? And what about making us smarter? Smarter at what?

But not all is lost. On a more positive note, futurism in a third article (they were busy this week), reports,

“The K&L Gates Endowment for Ethics and Computational Technologies seeks to introduce the thoughtful discussion on the use of AI in society. It is being established through funding worth $10 million from K&L Gates, one of the United States’ largest law firms, and the money will be used to hire new faculty chairs as well as support three new doctoral students.”

Though I’m not sure whether we can consider this a regulator, rather something to lessen the pain of swallowing.

Finally (for this week), back to Rob High,

“Smartphones are just the tip of the iceberg,” High said. “Human intelligence has its limitations and artificial intelligence is going to evolve in a lot of ways that won’t be similar to human intelligence. But, I think they will work best in the presence of humans.”

So, I’m more concerned with when artificial intelligence is not working at its best.

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Paying attention.

I want to make a Tshirt. On the front, it will say, “7 years is a long time.” On the back, it will say, “Pay attention!”

What am I talking about? I’ll start with some background. This semester, I am teaching a collaborative studio with designers from visual communications, interior design, and industrial design. Our topic is Humane Technologies, and we are examining the effects of an Augmented Reality (AR) system that could be ubiquitous in 7 years. The process began with an immersive scan of the available information and emerging advances in AR, VR, IoT, human augmentation (HA) and, of course, AI. In my opinion, these are a just a few of the most transformative technologies currently attracting the heaviest investment across the globe. And where the money goes there goes the most rapid advancement.

A conversation starter.

One of the biggest challenges for the collaborative studio class (myself included) is to think seven years out. Although we read Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns, our natural tendency is to think linearly, not exponentially. One of my favorite Kurzweil illustrations is this:

“Exponentials are quite seductive because they start out sub-linear. We sequenced one ten-thousandth of the human genome in 1990 and two ten-thousandths in 1991. Halfway through the genome project, 7 ½ years into it, we had sequenced 1 percent. People said, “This is a failure. Seven years, 1 percent. It’s going to take 700 years, just like we said.” Seven years later it was done, because 1 percent is only seven doublings from 100 percent — and it had been doubling every year. We don’t think in these exponential terms. And that exponential growth has continued since the end of the genome project. These technologies are now thousands of times more powerful than they were 13 years ago, when the genome project was completed.”1

So when I hear a policymaker, say, “We’re a long way from that,” I cringe. We’re not a long way away from that. The iPhone was introduced on June 29, 2007, not quite ten years ago. The ripple-effects from that little technological marvel are hard to catalog. With the smartphone, we have transformed everything from social and behavioral issues to privacy and safety. As my students examine the next possible phase of our thirst for the latest and greatest, AR (and it’s potential for smartphone-like ubiquity), I want them to ask the questions that relate to supporting systems, along with the social and ethical repercussions of these transformations. At the end of it all, I hope that they will walk away with an appreciation for paying attention to what we make and why. For example, why would we make a machine that would take away our job? Why would we build a superintelligence? More often than not, I fear the answer is because we can.

Our focus on the technologies mentioned above is just a start. There are more than these, and we shouldn’t forget things like precise genetic engineering techniques such as CRISPR/Cas9 Gene Editing, neuromorphic technologies such as microprocessors configured like brains, the digital genome that could be the key to disease eradication, machine learning, and robotics.

Though they may sound innocuous by themselves, they each have gigantic implications for disruptions to society. The wild card in all of these is how they converge with each other and the results that no one anticipated. One such mutation would be when autonomous weapons systems (AI + robotics + machine learning) converge with an aggregation of social media activity to predict, isolate and eliminate a viral uprising.

From recent articles and research by the Department of Defense, this is no longer theoretical; we are actively pursuing it. I’ll talk more about that next week. Until then, pay attention.

 

1. http://www.bizjournals.com/sanjose/news/2016/09/06/exclusivegoogle-singularity-visionary-ray.htm
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Now I know that Kurzweil is right.

 

In a previous blog entitled “Why Kurzweil is probably right,” I made this statement,

“Convergence is the way technology leaps forward. Supporting technologies enable formerly impossible things to become suddenly possible.”

That blog was talking about how we are developing AI systems at a rapid pace. I quoted a WIRED magazine article by David Pierce that was previewing consumer AIs already in the marketplace and some of the advancements on the way. Pierce said that a personal 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.”

Then, I made my usual cautionary comment about how such technologies will change us. And they will. So, if you follow this blog, you know that I throw cold water onto technological promises as a matter of course. I do this because I believe that someone has to.

Right now I’m preparing my collaborative design studio course. We’re going to be focusing on AR and VR, but since convergence is an undeniable influence on our techno-social future, we will have to keep AI, human augmentation, the Internet of Things, and a host of other emerging technologies on the desktop as well. In researching the background for this class, I read three articles from Peter Diamandis for the Singularity Hub website. I’ve written about Peter before, as well. He’s brilliant. He’s also a cheerleader for the Singularity. So that being said, these articles, one on the Internet of Everything (IoE/IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), and another on Augmented and Virtual Reality (AR/VR), are full of promises. Most of what we thought of as science fiction, even a couple of years ago are now happening with such speed that Diamandis and his cohorts believe they are imminent in only three years. And by that I mean commonplace.

If that isn’t enough for us to sit up and take notice, then I am reminded of an article from the Silicon Valley Business Journal, another interview with Ray Kurzweil. Kurzweil, of course, has pretty much convinced us all by now that the Law of Accelerating Returns is no longer hyperbole. If anyone thought that it was only hype, sheer observation should have brought them to their senses. In this article,
Kurzweil gives this excellent illustration of how exponential growth actually plays out—no longer as a theory but—as demonstrable practice.

“Exponentials are quite seductive because they start out sub-linear. We sequenced one ten-thousandth of the human genome in 1990 and two ten-thousandths in 1991. Halfway through the genome project, 7 ½ years into it, we had sequenced 1 percent. People said, “This is a failure. Seven years, 1 percent. It’s going to take 700 years, just like we said.” Seven years later it was done because 1 percent is only seven doublings from 100 percent — and it had been doubling every year. We don’t think in these exponential terms. And that exponential growth has continued since the end of the genome project. These technologies are now thousands of times more powerful than they were 13 years ago when the genome project was completed.”

When you combine that with the nearly exponential chaos of hundreds of other converging technologies, indeed the changes to our world and behavior are coming at us like a bullet-train. Ask any Indy car driver, when things are happening that fast, you have to be paying attention.
But when the input is like a firehose and the motivations are unknown, how on earth do we do that?

Personally, I see this as a calling for design thinkers worldwide. Those in the profession, schooled in the ways of design thinking have been espousing our essential worth to realm of wicked problems for some time now. Well, problems don’t get more wicked than this.

Maybe we can design an AI that could keep us from doing stupid things with technologies that we can make but cannot yet comprehend the impact of.

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Big-Data Algorithms. Don’t worry. Be happy.

 

It’s easier for us to let the data decide for us. At least that is the idea behind global digital design agency Huge. Aaron Shapiro is the CEO. He says, “The next big breakthrough in design and technology will be the creation of products, services, and experiences that eliminate the needless choices from our lives and make ones on our behalf, freeing us up for the ones we really care about: Anticipatory design.”

Buckminster Fuller wrote about Anticipatory Design Science, but this is not that. Trust me. Shapiro’s version is about allowing big data, by way of artificial intelligence and neural networks, to become so familiar with us and our preferences that it anticipates what we need to do next. In this vision, I don’t have to decide what to wear, or eat, or how to get to work, or when to buy groceries, or gasoline, what color trousers go with my shoes and also when it’s time to buy new shoes. No decisions will be necessary. Interestingly, Shapiro sees this as a good thing. The idea comes from a flurry of activity about something called decision fatigue. What is that? In a nutshell, it says that our decision-making capacity is a reservoir that gradually gets depleted the more decisions we make, possibly as a result of body chemistry. After a long string of decisions, according to the theory, we are more likely to make a bad decision or none at all. Things like willpower disintegrate along with our decision-making.

Among the many articles in the last few months on this topic was FastCompany, who wrote that,

“Anticipatory design is fundamentally different: decisions are made and executed on behalf of the user. The goal is not to help the user make a decision, but to create an ecosystem where a decision is never made—it happens automatically and without user input. The design goal becomes one where we eliminate as many steps as possible and find ways to use data, prior behaviors and business logic to have things happen automatically, or as close to automatic as we can get.”

Supposedly this frees “us up for the ones we really care about.”
My questions are, who decides which questions are important? And once we are freed from making decisions, will we even know that we have missed on that we really care about?

Google Now is a digital assistant that not only responds to a user’s requests and questions, but predicts wants and needs based on search history. Pulling flight information from emails, meeting times from calendars and providing recommendations of where to eat and what to do based on past preferences and current location, the user simply has to open the app for their information to compile.”

It’s easy to forget that AI as we currently know it goes under the name of Facebook or Google or Apple or Amazon. We tend to think of AI as some ghostly future figure or a bank of servers, or an autonomous robot. It reminds me a bit of my previous post about Nick Bostrom and the development of SuperIntelligence. Perhaps it is a bit like an episode of Person of Interest. As we think about designing systems that think for us and decide what is best for us, it might be a good idea to think about what it might be like to no longer think—as long as we still can.

 

 

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Yes, you too can be replaced.

Over the past weeks, I have begun to look at the design profession and design education in new ways. It is hard to argue with the idea that all design is future-based. Everything we design is destined for some point beyond now where the thing or space, the communication, or the service will exist. If it already existed, we wouldn’t need to design it. So design is all about the future. For most of the 20th century and the last 16 years, the lion’s share of our work as designers has focused primarily on very near-term, very narrow solutions: A better tool, a more efficient space, a more useful user interface or satisfying experience. In fact, the tighter the constraints, the narrower the problem statement and greater the opportunity to apply design thinking to resolve it in an elegant and hopefully aesthetically or emotionally pleasing way. Such challenges are especially gratifying for the seasoned professional as they have developed almost an intuitive eye toward framing these dilemmas from which novel and efficient solutions result. Hence, over the course of years or even decades, the designer amasses a sort of micro scale, big data assemblage of prior experiences that help him or her reframe problems and construct—alone or with a team—satisfactory methodologies and practices to solve them.

Coincidentally, this process of gaining experience is exactly the idea behind machine learning and artificial intelligence. But, since computers can amass knowledge from analyzing millions of experiences and judgments it is theoretically possible that an artificial intelligence could gain this “intuitive eye” to a degree far surpassing the capacity of an individual him-or-her designer.

That is the idea behind a brash (and annoyingly self-conscious) article from the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) entitled Automation Threatens To Make Graphic Designers Obsolete. Titles like this are a hook. Of course. Designers, deep down assume that they can never be replaced. They believe this because inherent to the core of artificial intelligence there is a lack of understanding, empathy or emotional verve, so far. We saw this earlier in 2016 when an AI chatbot went Nazi because a bunch of social media hooligans realized that Tay (the name of the Microsoft chatbot) was in learn mode. If you told “her” Nazi’s were cool, she believed you. It was proof, again, that junk in is junk out.

The AIGA author Rob Peart pointed to AutoDesk’s Dreamcatcher software that is capable of rapid prototyping surprisingly creative albeit roughly detailed prototypes. Peart features a quote from an Executive Creative Director for techno-ad-agency Sapient Nitro. “A designer’s role will evolve to that of directing, selecting, and fine tuning, rather than making. The craft will be in having vision and skill in selecting initial machine-made concepts and pushing them further, rather than making from scratch. Designers will become conductors, rather than musicians.”

I like the way we always position new technology in the best possible light. “You’re not going to lose your job. Your job is just going to change.” But tell that to the people who used to write commercial music, for example. The Internet has become a vast clearing house for every possible genre of music. It’s all available for a pittance of what it would have taken a musician to write, arrange and produce a custom piece of music. It’s called stock. There are stock photographs, stock logos, stock book templates, stock music, stock house plans, and the list goes on. All of these have caused a significant disruption to old methods of commerce, and some would say that these stock versions of everything lack the kind of polish and ingenuity that used to distinguish artistic endeavors. The artist’s who’s jobs they have obliterated refer to the work with a four-letter word.

Now, I confess I have used stock photography, and stock music, but I have also used a lot of custom photography and custom music as well. Still, I can’t imagine crossing the line to a stock logo or stock publication design. Perish the thought! Why? Because they look like four-letter-words; homogenized, templates, and the world does not need more blah. It’s likely that we also introduced these new forms of stock commerce in the best possible light, as great democratizing innovations that would enable everyone to afford music, or art or design. That anyone can make, create or borrow the things that professionals used to do.

As artificial intelligence becomes better at composing music, writing blogs and creating iterative designs (which it already does and will continue to improve), we should perhaps prepare for the day when we are no longer musicians or composers but rather simply listeners and watchers.

But let’s put that in the best possible light: Think of how much time we’ll have to think deep thoughts.

 

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Superintelligence. Is it the last invention we will ever need to make?

I believe it is crucial that we move beyond preparation to adapt or react to the future but to actively engage in shaping it.

An excellent example of this kind of thinking is Nick Bostrom’s TED talk from 2015.

Bostrom is concerned about the day when machine intelligence exceeds human intelligence (the guess is somewhere between twenty and thirty years from now). He points out that, “Once there is super-intelligence, the fate of humanity may depend on what the super-intelligence does. Think about it: Machine intelligence is the last invention that humanity will ever need to make. Machines will then be better at inventing [designing] than we are, and they’ll be doing so on digital timescales.”

His concern is legitimate. How do we control something that is smarter than we are? Anticipating AI will require more strenuous design thinking than that which produces the next viral game, app, or service. But these applications are where the lion’s share of the money is going. When it comes to keeping us from being at best irrelevant or at worst an impediment to AI, Bostrom is guardedly optimistic about how we can approach it. He thinks we could, “[…]create an A.I. that uses its intelligence to learn what we value, and its motivation system is constructed in such a way that it is motivated to pursue our values or to perform actions that it predicts we would approve of.”

At the crux of his argument and mine: “Here is the worry: Making superintelligent A.I. is a really hard challenge. Making superintelligent A.I. that is safe involves some additional challenge on top of that. The risk is that if somebody figures out how to crack the first challenge without also having cracked the additional challenge of ensuring perfect safety.”

Beyond machine learning (which has many facets), there are a wide-ranging set of technologies, from genetic engineering to drone surveillance, to next-generation robotics, and even VR, that could be racing forward without someone thinking about this “additional challenge.”

This could be an excellent opportunity for designers. But, to do that, we will have to broaden our scope to engage with science, engineering, and politics. More on that in future blogs.

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Surveillance. Are we defenseless?

Recent advancements in AI that are increasing exponentially (in areas such as facial recognition) demonstrate a level of sophistication in surveillance that renders most of us indefensible. There is a new transparency, and virtually every global citizen is a potential microbe for scrutiny beneath the microscope. I was blogging about this before I ever set eyes on the CBS drama Person of Interest, but the premise that surveillance could be ubiquitous is very real. The series depicts a mega, master computer that sees everything, but the idea of gathering a networked feed of the world’s cameras and a host of other accessible devices into a central data facility where AI sorts, analyzes and learns what kind of behavior is potentially threatening, is well within reach. It isn’t even a stretch that something like it already exists.

As with most technologies, however, they do not exist in a vacuum. Technologies converge. Take, for example, a recent article in WIRED about how accurate facial recognition is becoming even when the subject is pixelated or blurred. A common tactic to obscure the identity of video witness or an innocent bystander is to blur or to pixelate their face; a favored technique of Google Maps. Just go to any big city street view and Google has systematically obscured license plates and faces. Today these methods no longer compete against state-of-the-art facial recognition systems.

The next flag is the escalating sophistication of hacker technology. One of the most common methods is malware. Through an email or website, malware can infect a computer and raise havoc. Criminals often use it to ransom a victim’s computer before removing the infection. But not all hackers are criminals, per se. The FBI is pushing for the ability to use malware to digital wiretap or otherwise infiltrate potentially thousands of computers using only a single warrant. Ironically, FBI Director James Comey recently admitted that he puts tape over the camera on his personal laptop. I wrote about this a few weeks back What does that say about the security of our laptops and devices?

Is the potential for destructive attacks on our devices is so pervasive that the only defense we have is duct tape? We can track as far back as Edward Snowden, the idea that the NSA can listen in on your phone even when it’s off. And since 2014, experts have confirmed that the technology exists. In fact, albeit sketchy, some apps purport to do exactly that. You won’t find them in the app store (for obvious reasons), but there are websites where you can click the “buy” button. According to the site Stalkertools.com, which doesn’t pass the legit news site test, (note the use of awesome) one these apps promises that you can:

• Record all phone calls made and received, hear everything being said because you can record all calls and even listen to them at a later date.
• GPS Tracking, see on a map on your computer, the exact location of the phone
• See all sites that are opened on the phone’s web browser
• Read all the messages sent and received on IM apps like Skype, Whatsapp and all the rest
• See all the passwords and logins to sites that the person uses, this is thanks to the KeyLogger feature.
• Open and close apps with the awesome “remote control” feature
• Read all SMS messages and see all photos send and received on text messages
• See all photos taken with the phone’s camera

“How it work” “ The best monitoring for protect family” — Yeah. Sketchy.
“How it work” “ The best monitoring for protect family” — Sketchy, you think?

I visited one of these sites (above) and, frankly, I would never click a button on a website that can’t form a sentence in English, and I would not recommend that you do either. Earlier this year, the UK Independent published an article where Kelli Burns, a mass communication professor at the University of South Florida, alleged that Facebook regularly listens to users phone conversations to see what people are talking about. Of course, she said she can’t be certain of that.

Nevertheless, it’s out there, and if it has not already happened eventually, some organization or government will find a way to network the access points and begin collecting information across a comprehensive matrix of data points. And, it would seem that we will have to find new forms of duct tape to attempt to manage whatever privacy we have left. I found a site that gives some helpful advice for determining whether someone is tapping your phone.

Good luck.

 

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Transcendent Plan

 

One of my oft-quoted sources for future technology is Ray Kurzweil. A brilliant technologist, inventor, and futurist, Kurzweil seems to see it all very clearly, almost as though he were at the helm personally. Some of Kurzweil’s theses are crystal clear for me, such as an imminent approach toward the Singularity in a series of innocuous, ‘seemingly benign,’ steps. I also agree with his Law of Accelerating Returns1 which posits that technology advances exponentially. In a recent interview with the Silicon Valley Business Journal, he nicely illustrated that idea.

“Exponentials are quite seductive because they start out sub-linear. We sequenced one ten-thousandth of the human genome in 1990 and two ten-thousandths in 1991. Halfway through the genome project, 7 ½ years into it, we had sequenced 1 percent. People said, “This is a failure. Seven years, 1 percent. It’s going to take 700 years, just like we said.” Seven years later it was done, because 1 percent is only seven doublings from 100 percent — and it had been doubling every year. We don’t think in these exponential terms. And that exponential growth has continued since the end of the genome project. These technologies are now thousands of times more powerful than they were 13 years ago, when the genome project was completed.”

Kurzweil says the same kinds of leaps are approaching for solar power, resources, disease, and longevity. Our tendency to think linear instead of exponential means that we can deceive ourselves into believing that technologies that, ‘just aren’t there yet,’ are ‘a long way off.’ In reality, they may be right around the corner.

I’m not as solid in my affirmation of Kurzweil (and others) when it comes to some of his other predictions. Without reading too much between the lines, you can see that there is a philosophy that is helping to drive Kurzweil. Namely, he doesn’t want to die. Of course, who does? But his is a quest to deny death on a techno-transcendental level. Christianity holds that eternal life awaits the believer in Jesus Christ, other religions are satisfied that our atoms return to the greater cosmos, or that reincarnation is the next step. It would appear that Kurzweil has no time for faith. His bet on science and technology. He states,

“I think we’re very much on track to have human-level AI by 2029, which has been my consistent prediction for 20 years, and then to be able to send nanobots into the brain in the 2030s and connect our biological neocortex to synthetic neocortex in the cloud.”

In the article mentioned above, Kurzweil states that his quest to live forever is not just about the 200-plus supplements that he takes daily. He refers to this as “Bridge One.” Bridge One buys us time until technology catches up. Then “Bridge Two,” the “biotechnology revolution” takes over and radically extends our life. If all else fails, our mind will be uploaded to Cloud (which will have evolved to a synthetic neocortex), though it remains to be seen whether the sum-total of a mind also equals consciousness in some form.

For many who struggle with the idea of death, religious or not, I wonder if when we dissect it, it is not the fear of physical decrepitude that scares us, but the loss of consciousness; that unique ability of humans to comprehend their world, share language and emotions, to create and contemplate?

I would pose that it is indeed that consciousness that makes us human (along with the injustice at the thought that we feel that we might lose it. It would seem that transcendence is in order. In one scenario this transcendence comes from God, in another ‘we are as Gods.’2

So finally, I wonder whether all of these small, exponentially replicating innovations—culminating to the point where we are accessing Cloud-data only by thinking, or communicating via telepathy, or writing symphonies for eternity—will make us more or less human. If we decide that we are no happier, no more content or fulfilled, is there any going back?

Seeing as it might be right around the corner, we might want to think about these things now rather than later.

 

1. Kurzweil, R. (2001) The Law of Accelerating Returns, KurzweilAI . Kurzweil AI. Available at: http://www.kurzweilai.net/the-law-of-accelerating-returns (Accessed: October 10, 2015). 
2. 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.
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