Tag Archives: SXSW

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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Robots will be able to do almost anything, including what you do.

There seems to be a lot of talk these days about what our working future may look like. A few weeks ago I wrote about some of Faith Popcorn’s predictions. Quoting from the Popcorn slide deck,

“Work, as we know it, is dying. Careers and offices: Over. The robots are marching in, taking more and more skilled jobs. To keep humans from becoming totally obsolete, the government must intervene, incentivizing companies to keep people on the payroll. Otherwise, robots would job-eliminate them. For the class of highly-trained elite works, however, things have never been better. Maneuvering from project to project, these free-agents thrive. Employers, eager to secure their human talent, lavish them with luxurious benefits and unprecedented flexibility.  The gap between the Have’s and Have-Nots has never been wider.”

Now, I consider Popcorn to be a marketing futurist, she’s in the business to help brands. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I agree with almost all of her predictions. But she’s not the only one talking about the future of work. In a recent New York Times Sunday Book Review (forwarded to me by a colleague) Rise Of The  Robots | Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, Martin Ford pretty much agrees. According to the review, “Tasks that would seem to require a distinctively human capacity for nuance are increasingly assigned to algorithms, like the ones currently being introduced to grade essays on college exams.” Increasingly devices, like 3D printers or drones can do work that used to require a full-blown manufacturing plant or what was heretofore simply impossible. Ford’s book goes on to chronicle dozens of instances like this. The reviewer, Barbara Ehrenreich, states, “In ‘Rise of the Robots,’ Ford argues that a society based on luxury consumption by a tiny elite is not economically viable. More to the point, it is not biologically viable. Humans, unlike robots, need food, health care and the sense of usefulness often supplied by jobs or other forms of work.”

In another article in Fast Company, Gwen Moran surveys a couple of PhD’s, one from MIT and another who’s executive director of the Society of Human Resource Management. The latter, Mark Schmit agrees that there will be a disparity in the work force. “this winner/loser scenario predicts a widening wealth gap, Schmit says. Workers will need to engage in lifelong education to remain on top of how job and career trends are shifting to remain viable in an ever-changing workplace, he says.” On the other end of the spectrum some see the future as more promising. The aforementioned MIT prof, Erik Brynjolfsson, “…thinks that technology has the potential for “shared prosperity,” giving us richer lives with more leisure time and freedom to do the types of work we like to do. But that’s going to require collaboration and a unified effort among developers, workers, governments, and other stakeholders…Machines could carry out tasks while programmed intelligence could act as our “digital agents” in the creation and sharing of products and knowledge.”

I’ve been re-accessing Stuart Candy’s PhD dissertation The Futures of Everyday Life, recently and he surfaces a great quote from science fiction writer Warren Ellis which itself was surfaced through Bruce Sterling’s State of the World Address at SXSW in 2006. It is,

“[T]here’s a middle distance between the complete collapse of infrastructure and some weird geek dream of electronically knowing where all your stuff is. Between apocalyptic politics and Nerd-vana, is the human dimension. How this stuff is taken on board, by smart people, at street level. … That’s where the story lies… in this spread of possible futures, and the people, on the ground, facing them. The story has to be about people trying to steer, or condemn other people, toward one future or another, using everything in their power. That’s a big story. “1

This is relevant for design, too, the topic of last week’s blog. It all ties into the future of the future, the stuff I research and blog about.  It’s about speculation and design fiction and other things on the fringes of our thinking. The problem is that I don’t think that enough people are thinking about it. I think it is still too fringe. What do people do after they read Mark Ford? Does it change anything? In a moment of original thinking I penned the following thought, and as is usually the case subsequently heard it stated in other words by other researchers:

If we could visit the future ”in person,” how would it affect us upon our return? How vigorously would we engage our redefined present?

It is why we need more design fiction and the kind that shakes us up in the process.

Comments welcome.

1 http://www.warrenellis.com

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