Tag Archives: smartphone

How should we talk about the future?


Imagine that there are two camps. One camp holds high confidence that the future will be manifestly bright and promising in all aspects of human endeavor. Our health will dramatically improve as we eradicate disease and possibly even death. Artificial Intelligence will be at our beck and call to make our tough decisions, order our lives, fight our wars, watch over us, and keep us safe. Hence, it is full speed ahead. The positives outweigh the negatives. Any missteps will be but a minor hiccup, and we’ll cross those bridges when we come to them.

The second camp believes that many of these promises are achievable. But they also believe that we are beginning to see strong evidence that technology is indeed moving exponentially and that we are at a trajectory point in the curve that where will see what many experts have categorized as impossible or a “long way off” now is knocking at our door.

Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns, is proving remarkably accurate. Sure we adapted from the horse and buggy to the automobile, and from there to air travel, to an irritatingly resilient nuclear threat, to computers, and smartphones and DNA sequencing. But these changes are arriving more rapidly than their predecessors.

“‘As exponential growth continues to accelerate into the first half of the twenty-first century,’ [Kurzweil] writes. ‘It will appear to explode into infinity, at least from the limited and linear perspective of contemporary humans.’”1

The second camp sees this rapid-fire proliferation as alarming. Not because we will get to utopia faster, but because we will be standing in the midst of a host of disruptive technologies all coming to fruition at the same time without the benefit of meaningful oversight or the engagement of our societies.

I am in the second camp.

Last week, I talked about genetic engineering. The designer-baby question was always pushed aside as a long way off. Not anymore. That’s just one change. Our privacy, in the form of “big data,” from seemingly innocent pastimes such as Facebook, is being severely compromised. According to security technologist Bruce Schneier,

“Facebook can predict race, personality, sexual orientation, political ideology, relationship status, and drug use on the basis of Like clicks alone. The company knows you’re engaged before you announce it, and gay before you come out—and its postings may reveal that to other people without your knowledge or permission. Depending on the country you live in, that could merely be a major personal embarrassment—or it could get you killed.”

Facebook is just one of the seemingly benign things we do every day. By now, most of us consider that using our smartphones 75 percent of our day is also harmless, though we would also have to agree that it has changed us personally, behaviorally, and societally. And while the societal outcry against designer babies has been noticeable since last weeks stories about CrisprCas9 gene splicing with human embryos, how long will it be before we accept it as the norm, and feel pressure in our own families to participate to stay competitive, or maybe even just to be insured.

The fact is that we like to think that we can adapt to anything. To some extent, we pride ourselves on this resilience. Unfortunately, that seems to suggest that we are also powerless to affect these technologies and that we have no say in when, if, or whether we should make them in the first place. Should we be proud of the fact that we are adapting to a complete lack of privacy, to the likelihood of terrorism or being replaced by an AI? These are my questions.

So I am encouraged when others also raise these questions. Recently, the tech media which seems to be perpetually enamored of folks like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk, called Zuckerberg a “bad futurist” because of his over optimistic view of the future.

The article came from the Huffington post’s Rebecca Searles.
According to Searles,

“Elon Musk’s doomsday AI predictions aren’t “irresponsible,” but Mark Zuckerberg’s techno-optimism is.”3

According to a Zuckerberg podcast,

“…people who are arguing for slowing down the process of
building AI, I just find that really questionable… If you’re arguing against AI, then you’re arguing against safer cars that aren’t going to have accidents and you’re arguing against being able to better diagnose people when they’re sick.”3

Technology hawks are always promising safer, and healthier as their rationale for unimpeded acceleration. I’m sure that’s the rah-rah rationale for designer babies, too. Think of all the illnesses we will be able to breed out of the human race. Searles and I agree that negative outcomes deserve equally serious consideration as well, and not after they happen. As she aptly puts it,

“Tackling tech challenges with a build-it-and-see-what-happens approach (a la Zuckerberg’s former “move fast and break things” development mantra) just isn’t suitable for AI.”

The problem is, that Zuckerberg is not alone, nor is last weeks
Shoukhrat Mitalipov. Ultimately, this reality of two camps is the rationale behind my approach to design fiction. As you know, the objective of design fiction is to provoke. Promising utopia is rarely the tinder to fuel a provocation.

Let’s remember Charles Dickens’ story of Ebenezer Scrooge. The ghost of Christmas past takes him back in time where, for the first time, he sees the truth about his past. But this revelation does not change him. Then the ghost of Christmas present opens his eyes to everything around him that he is blind to in the present. Still, Scrooge is unaffected. And finally, the ghost of Christmas future takes him into the future, and it is here that Scrooge sees the days to come as “the way it will be” unless he changes something now.

Somehow, I think the outcome would have been different if that last ghost said, ”Don’t worry. You’ll adapt.”

Let’s not talk about the future in purely utopian terms nor total doom-and-gloom. The future will not be like one or the other any more than is the present day. But let us not be blind to our infinite capacity to foul things up, to the potential of bad actors or the inevitability of unanticipated consequences. If we have any hope of meeting our future with the altruistic image of a utopian society, let us go forward with eyes open.


1. http://www.businessinsider.com/ray-kurzweil-law-of-accelerating-returns-2015-5

2. “Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World”

3. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/mark-zuckerberg-is-a-bad-futurist_us_5979295ae4b09982b73761f0

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An example of impending convergence.


The IBM Research Alliance and partners have announced this week that they have developed “…an industry-first process to build silicon nanosheet transistors that will enable 5 nanometer (nm) chips – achieving a scale of 30 billion switches on a fingernail-sized chip that will deliver significant power and performance enhancements over today’s state-of-the-art 10nm chips.”

Silicon nanosheet transistors at 5nm

Along with this new development there, of course, come promises that the technology

“…can deliver 40 percent performance enhancement at fixed power, or 75 percent power savings at matched performance. This improvement enables a significant boost to meeting the future demands of artificial intelligence (AI) systems, virtual reality and mobile devices.”

That’s a lot of tech-speech, but essentially it means your computing will happen faster, your devices will be more powerful and use less battery life.

In a previous blog, I discussed the nanometer idea.

“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.”

Right now, IBM and their partners see this new development as a big plus to the future of their cognitive systems. What are cognitive systems?

IBM can answer that:

“Humans are on the cusp of augmenting their lives in extraordinary ways with AI. At IBM Research Labs around the globe, we envision and develop next-generation systems that work side-by-side with humans, accelerating our ability to create, learn, make decisions and think. We also architect the future of Watson, which has evolved from an IBM Research project to the world’s first and most-advanced AI platform.”

So it’s Watson and lots of other AI that may see the biggest benefits as a result of this new tech. With smaller, faster, more efficient chips AI can live a more robust life inside your phone or another device. But thinking phone is probably thinking way too big. Think of something much smaller but just as powerful.

Of course, every new technology comes with promises.

“Whether exploring new technical capabilities, collaborating on ethical practices or applying Watson technology to cancer research, financial decision-making, oil exploration or educational toys, IBM Research is shaping the future of AI.”

It’s all about AI and how we can augment “our lives in extraordinary ways.” Assuming that everyone plays nice, this is another example of technology poised for great things for humankind. Undoubtedly, micro-sized AI can be used for all sorts of nefarious purposes so let’s hope that the “ethical practices” part of their research is getting equal weight.

The question we have yet to ask is whether a faster, smaller, more powerful, all-knowing, steadily accelerating AI is something we truly need. This is a debate worth having. In the meantime, a 5 nm chip breakthrough is an excellent example of how a new, breakthrough technology awaits application by others for a myriad of purposes, advancing them all, in particular ways, by leaps and bounds. Who are these others? And what will they do next?

The right thing to do. Remember that idea?

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Design fiction. I want to believe.


I have blogged in the past about logical succession. When it comes to creating realistic design fiction narrative, there needs to be a sense of believability. Coates1 calls this “plausible reasoning.”, “[…]putting together what you know to create a path leading to one or several new states or conditions, at a distance in time.” In other words, for the audience to suspend their disbelief, there has to be a basic understanding of how we got here. If you depict something that is too fantastic, your audience won’t buy it, especially if you are trying to say that, “This could happen.”

“When design fictions are conceivable and realistically executed they carry a greater potential for making an impact and focusing discussion and debate around these future scenarios.”2

In my design futures collaborative studio, I ask students to do a rigorous investigation of future technologies, the ones that are on the bleeding edge. Then I want them to ask, “What if?” It is easier said than done. Particularly because of technological convergence, the way technologies merge with other technologies to form heretofore unimagined opportunities.

There was an article this week in Wired Magazine concerning a company called Magic Leap. They are in the MR business, mixed reality as opposed to virtual reality. With MR, the virtual imagery happens within the space you’re in—in front of your eyes—rather than in an entirely virtual space. The demo from Wired’s site is pretty convincing. The future of MR and VR, for me, are easy to predict. Will it get more realistic? Yes. Will it get cheaper, smaller, and ubiquitous? Yes. At this point, a prediction like this is entirely logical. Twenty-five years ago it would not have been as easy to imagine.

As the Wired article states,

“[…]the arrival of mass-market VR wasn’t imminent.[…]Twenty-five years later a most unlikely savior emerged—the smartphone! Its runaway global success drove the quality of tiny hi-res screens way up and their cost way down. Gyroscopes and motion sensors embedded in phones could be borrowed by VR displays to track head, hand, and body positions for pennies. And the processing power of a modern phone’s chip was equal to an old supercomputer, streaming movies on the tiny screen with ease.”

To have predicted that VR would be where it is today with billions of dollars pouring into fledgling technologies and realistic, and utterly convincing demonstrations would have been illogical. It would have been like throwing a magnet into a bucket of nails, rolling it around and guessing which nails would end up coming out attached.

What is my point? I think it is important to remind ourselves that things will move blindingly fast particularly when companies like Google and Facebook are throwing money at them. Then, the advancement of one only adds to the possibilities of the next iteration possibly in ways that no one can predict. As VR or MR merges with biotech or artificial reality, or just about anything else you can imagine, the possibilities are endless.

Unpredictable technology makes me uncomfortable. Next week I’ll tell you why.


  1. Coates, J.F., 2010. The future of foresight—A US perspective. Technological Forecasting & Social Change 77, 1428–1437.
  2. E. Scott Denison. “Timed-release Design Fiction: A Digital Online Methodology to Provoke Reflection on our Socio- Technological Future.”  Edited by Michal Derda Nowakowski. ISBN: 978-1-84888-427-4 Interdisciplinary.net.
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