Tag Archives: nanotechnology

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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Did we design this future?


I have held this discussion before, but a recent video from FastCompany reinvigorates a provocative aspect concerning our design future, and begs the question: Is it a future we’ve designed? It centers around the smartphone. There are a lot of cool things about our smartphones like convenience, access, connectivity, and entertainment, just to name a few. It’s hard to believe that Steve Jobs introduced the very first iPhone just nine years ago on June 29, 2007. It was an amazing device, and it’s no shocker that it took off like wildfire. According to stats site Statista, “For 2016, the number of smartphone users is forecast to reach 2.08 billion.” Indeed, we can say, they are everywhere. In the world of design futures, the smartphone becomes Exhibit A of how an evolutionary design change can spawn a complex system.

Most notably, there are the billions of apps that are available to users that promise a better way to calculate tips, listen to music, sleep, drive, search, exercise, meditate, or create. Hence, there is a gigantic network of people who make their living supplying user services. These are direct benefits to society and commerce. No doubt, our devices have also often saved us countless hours of analog work, enabled us to manage our arrivals and departures, and keep in contact (however tenuous) with our friends and acquaintances. Smartphones have helped us find people in distress and help us locate persons with evil intent. But, there are also unintended consequences, like legislation to keep us from texting and driving because these actions have also taken lives. There are issues with dependency and links to sleep disorders. Some lament the deterioration of human, one-on-one, face-to-face, dialog and the distracted conversations at dinner or lunch. There are behavioral disorders, too. Since 2010 there has been a Smartphone Addiction Rating Scale (SARS) and the Young Internet Addiction Scale (YIAS). Overuse of mobile phones has prompted dozens of studies into adolescents as well as adults, and there are links to increased levels of ADHD, and a variety of psychological disorders including stress and depression.

So, while we rely on our phones for all the cool things they enable us to do we are—in less than ten years—experiencing a host of unintended consequences. One of these is privacy. Whether Apple or another brand, the intricacies of smartphone technology are substantially the same. This video shows why your phone is so easy to hack, to activate your phone’s microphone, camera, access your contact list or track your location. And, with the right tools, it is frighteningly simple. What struck me most after watching the video was not how much we are at risk of being hacked, eavesdropped on, or perniciously viewed, but the comments from a woman on the street. She said, “I don’t have anything to hide.” It is not the first millennial that I have heard say this. And that is what, perhaps, bothers me most—our adaptability based on the slow incremental erosion of what used to be our private space.

We can’t rest responsibility entirely on the smartphone. We have to include the idea of social media going back to the days of (amusingly) MySpace. Sharing yourself with a group of close friends gradually gave way to the knowledge that the photo or info may also get passed along to complete strangers. It wasn’t, perhaps your original intention, but, oh well, it’s too late now. Maybe that’s when we decided that we had better get used to sharing our space, our photos (compromising or otherwise), our preferences, our adventures and misadventures with outsiders, even if they were creeps trolling for juicy tidbits. As we chalked up that seemingly benign modification of our behavior to adaptability, the first curtain fell. If someone is going to watch me, and there’s nothing I can do about it, then I may as well get used to it. We adjusted as a defense mechanism. Paranoia was the alternative, and no one wants to think of themselves as paranoid.

A few weeks ago, I posted an image of Mark Zuckerberg’s laptop with tape over the camera and microphone. Maybe he’s more concerned with privacy since his world is full of proprietary information. But, as we become more accustomed to being both constantly connected and potentially tracked or watched, when will the next curtain fall? If design is about planning, directing or focusing, then the absence of design would be ignoring, neglecting or turning away. I return to the first question in this post: Did we design this future? If not, what did we expect?

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Privacy or paranoia?


If you’ve been a follower of this blog for a while, then you know that I am something of a privacy wonk. I’ve written about it before (about a dozen times, such as), and I’ve even built a research project (that you can enact yourself) around it. A couple of things transpired this week to remind me that privacy is tenuous. (It could also be all the back episodes of Person of Interest that I’ve been watching lately or David Staley’s post last April about the Future of Privacy.) First, I received an email from a friend this week alerting me to a little presumption that my software is spying on me. I’m old enough to remember when you purchased software on as a set of CDs (or even disks). You loaded in on your computer, and it seemed to last for years before you needed to upgrade. Let’s face it, most of us use only a small subset of the features in our favorite applications. I remember using Photoshop 5 for quite awhile before upgrading and the same with the rest of what is now called the Adobe Creative Suite. I still use the primary features of Photoshop 5, Illustrator 10 and InDesign (ver. whatever), 90% of the time. In my opinion, the add-ons to those apps have just slowed things down, and of course, the expense has skyrocketed. Gone are the days when you could upgrade your software every couple of years. Now you have to subscribe at a clip of about $300 a year for the Adobe Creative Suite. Apparently, the old business model was not profitable enough. But then came the Adobe Creative Cloud. (Sound of an angelic chorus.) Now it takes my laptop about 8 minutes to load into the cloud and boot up my software. Plus, it stores stuff. I don’t need it to store stuff for me. I have backup drives and archive software to do that for me.

Back to the privacy discussion. My friend’s email alerted me to this little tidbit hidden inside the Creative Cloud Account Manager.

Learn elsewhere, please.
Learn elsewhere, please.

Under the Security and Privacy tab, there are a couple of options. The first is Desktop App Usage. Here, you can turn this on or off. If it’s on, one of the things it tracks is,

“Adobe feature usage information, such as menu options or buttons selected.”

That means it tracks your keystrokes. Possibly this only occurs when you are using that particular app, but uh-uh, no thanks. Switch that off. Next up is a more pernicious option; it’s called, Machine Learning. Hmm. We all know what that is and I’ver written about that before, too. Just do a search. Here, Adobe says,

“Adobe uses machine learning technologies, such as content analysis and pattern recognition, to improve our products and services. If you prefer that Adobe not analyze your files to improve our products and services, you can opt-out of machine learning at any time.”

Hey, Adobe, if you want to know how to improve your products and services, how about you ask me, or better yet, pay me to consult. A deeper dive into ‘machine learning’ tells me more. Here are a couple of quotes:

“Adobe uses machine learning technologies… For example, features such as Content-Aware Fill in Photoshop and facial recognition in Lightroom could be refined using machine learning.”

“For example, we may use pattern recognition on your photographs to identify all images of dogs and auto-tag them for you. If you select one of those photographs and indicate that it does not include a dog, we use that information to get better at identifying images of dogs.”

Facial recognition? Nope. Help me find dog pictures? Thanks, but I think I can find them myself.

I know how this works. The more data that the machine can feed on the better it becomes at learning. I would just rather Adobe get their data by searching it out for it themselves. I’m sure they’ll be okay. (Afterall there’s a few million people who never look at their account settings.) Also, keep in mind, it’s their machine not mine.

The last item on my privacy rant just validated my paranoia. I ran across this picture of Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg hamming it up for his FB page.

zuckerberg copy


In the background, is his personal laptop. Upon closer inspection, we see that Zuck has a piece of duct tape covering his laptop cam and his dual microphones on the side. He knows.



Go get a piece of tape.

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The end of code.


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

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

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

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

Do we just turn it off?

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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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Are we ready to be gods? Revisited.


I base today’s blog on a 2013 post with a look at the world from the perspective of The Lightstream Chronicles, which takes place in the year 2159. To me, this is a very plausible future. — ESD


There was a time when crimes were simpler. Humans committed crimes against other humans — not so simple anymore. In that world, you have the old-fashioned mano a mano, but you also have human against synthetic, and synthetic against the human. There are creative variations as well.

It was bound to happen. No sooner than the first lifelike robots became commercially available in the late 2020’s, there were issues of ethics and misuse. Though scientists and ethicists discussed the topic in the early part of the 21st century, the problems escalated faster than the robotics industry had conceived possible.

According to the 2007 Roboethics Roadmap,

“…problems inherent in the possible emergence of human function in the robot: like consciousness, free will, self-consciousness, sense of dignity, emotions, and so on. Consequently, this is why we have not examined problems — debated in literature — like the need not to consider robot as our slaves, or the need to guarantee them the same respect, rights and dignity we owe to human workers.”1

In the 21st century many of the concerns within the scientific community centered around what we as humans might do to infringe upon the “rights” of the robot. Back in 2007, it occurred to researchers that the discussion of roboethics needed to include more fundamental questions regarding the ethics of the robots’ designers, manufacturers and users. However, once in the role of the creator-god, they did not foresee how “unprepared” for that responsibility we were as a society, and how quickly humans would pervert the robot for formerly “unethical” uses, including but not limited to their modification for crime and perversion.

Nevertheless, more than 100 years later, when synthetic human production is at the highest levels in history, the questions of ethics in both humans and their creations remain a significant point of controversy. As the 2007 Roboethics Roadmap concluded, “It is absolutely clear that without a deep rooting of Roboethics in society, the premises for the implementation of an artificial ethics in the robots’ control systems will be missing.”

After these initial introductions of humanoid robots, now seen as almost comically primitive, the technology, and in turn the reasoning, emotions, personality and realism became progressively more sophisticated. Likewise, their implementations became progressively more like the society that manufactured them. They became images of their creators both benevolent and malevolent.

In our image?



A series of laws were enacted to prevent the use of humanoid robots for criminal intent, yet at the same time, military interests were fully pursuing dispassionate automated humanoid robots with the express purpose of extermination. It was truly a time of paradoxical technologies. To further complicate the issue were ongoing debates on the nature of what was considered “criminal”. Could a robot become a criminal without human intervention? Is something criminal if it is consensual?

These issues ultimately evolved into complex social, economic, political, and legal entanglement that included heavy government regulation and oversight where such was achievable. As this complexity and infrastructure grew to accommodate the continually expanding technology, the greatest promise and challenges came almost 100 years after those first humanoid robots. With the advent of virtual human brains now being grown in labs, the readily identifiable differences between synthetic humans and real human gradually began to disappear. The similarities were so shocking and so undetectable that new legislation was enacted to restrict the use of virtual humans, and classification system was established to ensure visible distinctions for the vast variety of social synthetics.

The concerns of the very first Roboethics Roadmap are confirmed even 150 years into the future. Synthetics are still abused and used to perpetrate crimes. Their virtual humanness only adds an element of complexity, reality, and in some cases, horror to the creativity of how they are used.


 1 Euron Roboethics Roadmap
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Nine years from now.


Today I’m on my soapbox, again, as an advocate of design thinking, of which design fiction is part of the toolbox.

In 2014, the Pew Research Center published a report on Digital Life in 2025. Therein, “The report covers experts’ views about advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, and their impact on jobs and employment.” Their nutshell conclusion was that:

“Experts envision automation and intelligent digital agents permeating vast areas of our work and personal lives by 2025, (9 years from now), but they are divided on whether these advances will displace more jobs than they create.”

On the upside, some of the “experts” believe that we will, as the brilliant humans that we are, invent new kinds of uniquely human work that we can’t replace with AI—a return to an artisanal society with more time for leisure and our loved ones. Some think we will be freed from the tedium of work and find ways to grow in some other “socially beneficial” pastime. Perhaps we will just be chillin’ with our robo-buddy.

On the downside, there are those who believe that not only blue-collar, robotic, jobs will vanish, but also white-collar, thinking jobs, and that will leave a lot of people out of work since there are only so many jobs as clerks at McDonald’s or greeters at Wal-Mart. They think that some of these are the fault of education for not better preparing us for the future.

A few weeks ago I blogged about people who are thinking about addressing these concerns with something called Universal Basic Income (UBI), a $12,000 gift to everyone in the world since everyone will be out of work. I’m guessing (though it wasn’t explicitly stated) that this money would come from all the corporations that are raking in the bucks by employing the AI’s, the robots and the digital agents, but who don’t have anyone on the payroll anymore. The advocates of this idea did not address whether the executives at these companies, presumably still employed, will make more than $12,000, nor whether the advocates themselves were on the 12K list. I guess not. They also did not specify who would buy the services that these corporations were offering if we are all out of work. But I don’t want to repeat that rant here.

I’m not as optimistic about the unique capabilities of humankind to find new, uniquely human jobs in some new, utopian artisanal society. Music, art, and blogs are already being written by AI, by the way. I do agree, however, that we are not educating our future decision-makers to adjust adequately to whatever comes along. The process of innovative design thinking is a huge hedge against technology surprise, but few schools have ever entertained the notion and some have never even heard of it. In some cases, it has been adopted, but as a bastardized hybrid to serve business-as-usual competitive one-upmanship.

I do believe that design, in its newest and most innovative realizations, is the place for these anticipatory discussions and future. What we need is thinking that encompasses a vast array of cross-disciplinary input, including philosophy and religion, because these issues are more than black and white, they are ethically and morally charged, and they are inseparable from our culture—the scaffolding that we as a society use to answer our most existential questions. There is a lot of work to do to survive ourselves.



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