I am a Futures Studies researcher with special expertise in foresight, wild cards (black swans), and analysis of emerging and disruptive technologies. I have spoken to hundreds of conference audiences and appeared frequently on TV and radio to discuss for a wide range of listeners and viewers the fascinating study of the future of technology and society. Most recently, I have been lecturing for and providing consultation to entities worldwide including large companies and firms, the Lahav Management School at Tel Aviv University and other educational institutions, and as an invited keynote lecturer to innovation and global thinking workshops internationally including Greece, Kazakhstan, and Belarus.
In the last few days we’ve been hearing all kinds of allegations about the Brexit voters. They’ve been accused of racism, of narrow mindedness, and stupidity in general. We’ve been assured that the Brexit voters are the radical right-wing nationalists. But now come the results of the surveys and demonstrate that the reasons behind Brexit are more complex. It turns out that the main force that turned the tables came from the working-class voters.
In other words, the decision was made by the people who are most frustrated about the new economy and their perceived and very real inability to influence it.
A few months ago I wrote in this blog that the UK is turning into a plutonomy: a nation in which the wealthy and the prosperous are driving the economy, while everybody else tags along. The term plutonomy first appeared in a memo sent by the global bank Citigroup to its wealthiest clients. As the writers of the memo report –
“There is no such thing as “The U.S. Consumer” or “UK Consumer”, but rich and poor consumers in these countries… The rich are getting richer; they dominate spending. Their trend of getting richer looks unlikely to end anytime soon.”
The data reveals that this analysis has much merit. As The Equality Trust reports, the top 10% of earners in the UK have an income over 27 times larger than that of the poorest 10%.
It also turns out that in terms of income distribution, the UK is one of the most unequal developed countries in the world.
Of course the rich and the wealthy – residing mainly in London and in the South East – are largely satisfied with current affairs. In the 2014 State of the Nation poll inquiring about the level of trust citizens place in the UK political parties in general, those two regions were the most trusting of all. In the meantime, citizens from all other parts of the country gave devastatingly low grades (an average of 3.54 out of 10) to indicate their lack of trust in UK political parties.
The evidence, when taken together, means that the working class is dissatisfied and frustrated. The average worker in the UK knows he or she has no real power, and is feeling increasingly alienated from the political, economic and cultural elites in London. As Peter Mandler recently wrote –
“…the rest of the country has felt more and more excluded, not only from participation in the creativity and prosperity of London, but more crucially from power.”
So what happens when those citizens of a plutonomy, who realize they have no real power, are suddenly given the option to influence events? They eagerly grab at the rope they’ve been given, and yank on it – and damn the consequences. This is the real story behind Brexit: that of people who’ve been deprived of power for the last decade or two, suddenly being given the chance to make themselves heard. And they certainly did.
This analysis has implications for the future of other countries as well. The United Kingdom is not the most unequal nation in terms of income distribution. There are five other countries in the developed world with worse inequality: Mexico, Israel, Spain, Greece and the United States of America. These are all countries in which large parts of the electorate feel neglected and removed from power in the day-to-day happenings. But once every four years in America, the public gets the chance to choose who’ll sit in the White House – and Donald Trump campaign’s success shows just how much the public wants change and distrusts the current state of affairs.
Brexit is a demonstration of how the inherent tensions in plutonomies can explode, since the rich and wealthy may control the economy, but the current political system still gives some power to the public. This means that the rich still can’t allow themselves to ignore the general public, or the public will come back to bite them when they least expect it.
Right now, the general consensus among the wealthy and the celebrities of the UK is that the public is dumb. It’s not. It’s just frustrated and wants to make a point. If the people on top want to avoid such disastrous decision making in the future, they should stop blaming the public, and instead find ways to change the political environment so that the public will gain more power in the daily affairs of nations. Any other course of action would lead to tensions building up again and being released explosively at the next Spainexit, Greecexit, or – who knows – maybe even Trumpexit.
“You don’t understand,” said the soldier who sat next me, who was speaking into his phone. His hand was shaking. “They’re dangerous. Really dangerous. You need to find somewhere safe! Go to your mother, and call me as soon as you get there.”
He hung up, and held the phone with both hands on his lap. I could see the beads of sweat forming on his forehead.
“Is everything OK? Is there something I can help with?” I asked politely.
He shot a frightened look toward me. “Did you hear what’s happening on LinkedIn?” he asked.
“A bit,” I said. “What, exactly? What did they do now?”
“It’s not what they did, it’s what was done to them,” he muttered, and buried his head between his hands. “Didn’t you hear that LinkedIn was hacked? One hundred and seventeen million encrypted user passwords are now being sold to anyone who can pay all of two thousand dollars for them, and I’ve heard that hackers who’ve scanned these encrypted passwords were able to decipher ninety percent of them. That means that over one hundred million user accounts are now hacked. What’s more, I’ve just returned from Afghanistan. Do you know what this means?”
“No,” I said. “What?”
“I fought the Taliban there, and now, they know who I am,” he muttered. “I had always worn a nametag on my uniform, and any Afghan wanting to take revenge on me will have already found my password. He’ll know where I live, based on the personal details in my account. They know who my wife is. They know how to get to our house!”
“Oh.” I said. “This is the world without privacy that we’re all afraid of. But it’s OK. They won’t find your wife.”
He looked up with a miserable glance. “Why not?”
“Because LinkedIn was already hacked once, four years ago, in 2012.” I explained. “They just didn’t understand how serious the problem was back then. They thought that only six and a half million passwords were stolen. Now, it turns out for all of that time, Russian hackers had all of those passwords, and although they really may have used them during that time – they might have already sold them to the Chinese, to ISIS, or to other centers of power – you can still set your mind at ease, provided that you changed your password.”
“Actually, I did,” he said. “In 2013, I think.”
“So you see? Everything’s OK,” I reassured him. “Or, in more exact terms, sufficiently OK, since this whole episode should teach us all an important lesson. Real privacy doesn’t exist any more. One of the more secured companies in the world was hacked, and this event wasn’t exposed for four years. Now, think about it, and tell me, yourself – what are the chances that some of the world’s databases hadn’t been hacked yet by the intelligence services of countries like Russia, China, or even the United States, working under the radar?”
He thought for a moment. “None?” he suggested.
“That’s what I think, too.” I said. “Hey, Snowden managed to steal enormous amounts of information from the National Security Agency of the United States, and no one was even aware that the information disappeared until he let the cat out of the bag himself. He was just one more citizen concerned about what this agency was doing. What are the chances that the Chinese haven’t managed to bribe other people at the agency to send them the information? Or that the United States hadn’t located its own agents in Russian or Chinese communities, or anywhere else in the world? Chances are that all of this information about us – not just passwords, but identifying particulars, residential addresses, and so on – are already in the hands of large governments around the world. And yes, ISIS may also have gotten its hands on it, though that’s a bit less likely, since they aren’t as technologically advanced. But one day, a Russian or Chinese Snowden will funnel all of this information to Wikileaks, and we’ll all know about everyone else.”
“But only within the period that information was gathered in,” he said.
“Right,” I answered. “That’s why I’m claiming that we’ve all lost our historical privacy. In other words, even if one day we enact new legislation to protect private information, a large portion of the information will already be circulating around the world, but it’s only valid during the period it was gathered in. It’s nearly certain that by today, various intelligence services can piece together impressive profiles of much of the world’s population, though they can only rely on the information gathered during that time. So even if ISIS managed to get its hands on those passwords, and even if they managed to hack your profile during the period between 2012 and 2013 and extract data about you without you knowing about it, the big question is if you were even married at the time.”
“Yup,” he said. “But I was married to my ex-wife, in a house I used to live in. Does this mean that ISIS could get to her?
“If all of these assumptions are true, then yes.” I said. “Maybe you should call her and warn her?”
He hesitated for a moment, and shrugged.
“It’s OK,” he said. “She’ll manage.”
This article was originally written by me in Hebrew, and translated and published at vpnMentor.
Eric just shook his head. Something was obviously bothering him, and not even Flatbread Company’s pizza (quite possibly the best pizza in the known universe, or in Rhose Island) could provide him with some peace of mind.
“It’s the bot.” He finally erupted at me. “That damned bot. It’s going to take over my job.”
“You’re a teaching assistant.” I reminded him. “It’s not a real job. You barely have enough money to eat.”
“Well, it’s some kind of a job, at least.” He said bitterly. “And soon it’ll be gone too. I just heard that in Georgia’s Technological Institute they actually managed to have a bot – an artificial intelligence – perform as a teaching assistant, and no one noticed anything strange!”
“Yeah, I remember.” I remembered. “It happened in the last semester. What was the bot’s name again?”
“It all happened in a course about AI, that Prof. Ashok Goel gave in Georgia Tech.” He explained. “Goel realized that the teaching assistants in the course were swamped with questions from students, so he decided to train an artificial intelligence that would help the teaching assistants. The AI went over forty thousand questions, answers and comments written by students and teaching assistants in the course’s forum, and was trained to similarly answer new questions.”
“So how well did it go?” I asked.
“Wonderful. Just wonderful.” He sighed. “The AI, masquerading as Jill Watson, answered students’ questions throughout the semester, and nobody realized that there’s not a human being behind the username. Some students even wanted to nominate ‘her’ as an outstanding teaching assistant.”
“Well, where’s the harm in that?” I asked. “After all, she did lower the work volume for all the human teaching assistants, and the students obviously feel fine about that. So who cares?”
He sent a dirty look my way. “I care – the one who needs a job, even a horrible one like this, to live.” He said. “Just think about it: in a few years, when every course is managed by a bunch of AIs, there won’t be as many jobs open for human teaching assistants. Or maybe not even for teachers!”
“You need to think about this differently.” I advised him. “The positive side is that there’s still place for human teaching assistants, as long as they know how to work with the automated ones. After all, even the best AI in the world, at the moment, doesn’t know how to answer all the questions. There’s still a place for human common sense. So there’s definitely going to be a place for the human teaching assistant, but he’ll just have to be the best as what he does: he’ll need to operate several automated assistants at the same time that will handle the routine questions, and will pass to him only the most bizarre and complex questions; He’ll need to know how to work with computers and AI, but also to have good social skills to solve difficult situations for students; And he’ll need to be reliable enough to do all of the above proficiently over time. So yes, lots of people are going to compete for this one job, but I’m sure you can succeed at it!”
Eric didn’t look convinced. Quite honestly, I wasn’t either.
“Well,” I tried, “you can always switch occupations. For example, you can become a psychologist…”
“Ok, fine!” I said. “So just sell flowers or something!”
“Facebook is now opening a new bot service, so that people can open an online conversation with them, and order food, flowers and other products.” He said with frustration. “So you see? Nothing left for humans like us.”
“Well,” I thought hard. “There must be some things left for us to do. Like, you see that girl over there at the end of the bar? Cute, isn’t she? Did you notice she was looking at your for the last hour?”
He followed my eyes. “Yes.” He said, and I could hear the gears start turning in his head.
“Think about it.” I continued. “She’s probably interested in you, but doesn’t know how to approach.”
He thought about it. “I bet she doesn’t know what to say to me.”
“She doesn’t know how best to attract my attention.” He went on.
“That’s right!” I said.
“She needs help!” He decided. “And I’m just the guy who can help her. Help everyone!”
He stood up resolutely and went for the exit.
“Where are you going?” I called after him. “She’s right here!”
He turned back to me, and I winced at the sight of his glowing eyes – the sure sign of an engineer at work.
“This problem can definitely be solved using a bot.” He said, and went outside. I could barely hear his muffled voice carrying on behind the door. “And I’m about to do just that!”
I went back to my seat, and raised my glass in what I hoped was a comforting salute to the girl on the other side of the bar. She may not realize it quite yet, but soon bots will be able to replace human beings in yet another role.
The Uber driver was being exceptionally nice to me this morning.
“Nice to meet you, sir!” He greeted me cheerily. “I see you want to get to the university. Please, come on in! Can I offer you a bottle of mineral water? Or maybe some pretzels?”
“Thanks.” I said. I looked at the ceiling. No hidden cameras there. “You’re very nice. Very, very nice.”
“Yes, I know.” His face shone in understanding. “But it pays big time. I get good grades from the customers, so Uber’s algorithm is providing me with even more passengers all the time. It just pays to be nice.”
“Oh, so you’re just like those lawyers, physicians and accountants?”
“I don’t know.” He said. “Am I?”
“Absolutely.” I said. “Or rather, soon they’re going to be a lot like you: just plain nice. The thing is, the knowledge industries – and by that I mean professions which require that human beings go over data and develop insights – are undergoing automation. That means artificial intelligence is going to perform a major part of the work in those professions, and then the human workers – the successful ones, at least – will become nice and more polite to their customers.”
“Take Uber for example.” I gestured at the smartphone at the dashboard. “Taxi drivers partly deal with knowledge generation: they receive information from the passenger about the desired destination, and they have to come up with the knowledge of how to get there, based on their memory of the roads. In the past, a mere decade ago, taxi drivers needed to know the streets of the city like the back of their hand.”
“But today we have GPS.” Said my driver.
“Exactly.” I said. “Today, modern taxi drivers rely on a virtual assistant. It’s not just a GPS that tells you where you are. More advanced apps like Waze and Google Maps also show you how best to reach your destination, with vocal instructions at each step of the way. These virtual assistants allow anyone to be a taxi driver. Even if you never drove in a certain city in the past, you can still do a satisfactory job. In effect, the AI has equalized the playing ground in the field of taxi driving, since it lowered to a minimum the needed skill level. So how can a cabby still distinguish himself and gain an advantage over other drivers?”
“He has to be nice.” Smiled the guy at the wheel. I wondered to myself if he ever stops smiling.
“That’s what we see today.” I agreed. “The passengers are rating every driver according to the experience they had in his cab, since that is the main criteria left when all the others are equal. And Uber is helping the process of selecting for niceness, since they stop working with drivers who aren’t nice enough.”
“But what does it have to do with lawyers, accountants and physicians?” Asked the driver.
“We’re beginning to see a similar process in other knowledge-based professions.” I explained. “For example, just last week a new AI engine made the news: it’s starting to work in a big law firm, as a consultant to lawyers. And no wonder: this AI can read and understand plain English. When asked legal questions, the AI conducts research by going over hundreds of thousands of legal papers and precedents in seconds, and produces a final answers report with detailed explanations about how it has reached each answer. It even learns from experience, so that the more you work with it – the better it becomes.”
“So we won’t even need lawyers in the future?” Finally, the guy’s smile became genuine.
“Well, we may reach that point in the end, but it’ll take quite some time for us to get there.” I said. “And until that time, we’ll see AI engines that will provide free legal consultation online. This kind of a free consultation will suffice for some simple cases, but in the more sophisticated cases people will still want a living lawyer in the flesh, who’ll explain to them how they should act and will represent them in court. But how will people select their lawyers out of the nearly-infinite number of law school graduates out there?”
“According to their skill level.” Suggested the driver.’
“Well, that’s the thing. Everyone’s skills will be near equal. It won’t even matter if the lawyers have a big firm behind them. The size of the firm used to matter because it meant the top lawyers could employ tens of interns to browse through precedents for them. But pretty soon, AI will be able to do that as well. So when all lawyers – or at least most – are equal in skills and performance, the most employed lawyers will be the nice ones. They will be those who treat the customer in the best way possible: they will greet their clients with a smile, offer them a cup of tea when they set for in the office, and will have great conversational skills with which to explain to the client what’s going on in court.”
“And the same will happen with accountants and physicians?” He asked.
“It’s happening right now.” I said. “The work of accountants is becoming easier than ever before because of automation, and so accountants must be nicer than ever before. Soon, we’ll see the same phenomenon in the medical professions as well. When AI can equalize the knowledge level of most physicians, they will be selected according to the way they treat their patients. The patients will flock to the nicer physicians. In fact, the professionals treating the patients won’t even have to have a deep understanding in the field of medicine, just as today’s cabbies don’t need to fully remember the roads in the city. Instead, the medical professionals will have to understand people. They will need to relate to their patients, to figure them out, to find out what’s really bothering them, and to consult with the AI in order to come up with the insights they need in order to solve the patients’ issues.”
“So we gotta keep the niceness on.” Summarized my driver, as he parked the car in front of the entrance to the mall. “And provide the best customer service possible.”
“That’s my best advice right now about work in the future.” I agreed. I opened the door and started getting out of the car, and then hesitated. I turned on my smartphone. “I’m giving you five stars for the ride. Can you give me five too?”
His gaze lingered on me for a long time.
“Sorry.” He finally said. “You talk too much, and really – that’s not very nice.”
Players of World of Warcraft love to complain. There’s nothing new to that. Blizzard largely seems to ignore the players’ pleas, yells and moans, and yet recently one of the executives has decided to answer the community. In a response to a forum thread, assistant game director Ion Hazzikostas explained how World of Warcraft is actually working right now. His response tells us a lot about the inner works of a world of abundance – where everyone have their basic needs fulfilled.
Catering to Minorities
The first thing we need to understand, according to Hazzikostas, is that World of Warcraft is composed of many minority groups. As he says –
“A minority of players raid. A minority of players participate in PvP. A tiny minority touch Mythic raiding. A tiny minority of players do rated PvP. A minority of players have several max-level alts. A minority of players do pet battles, roleplay, list things for sale on the auction house, do Challenge Mode dungeons, and the list goes on.”
The result is that Blizzard – the omnipotent lord and god of World of Warcraft – is catering to minorities. In fact –
“…almost every facet of WoW is an activity that caters to a minority of the playerbase.”
This is what happens when you have a world of abundance. When people know that all of their basic needs will be taken care of, they feel free to do whatever they like. A minority will create art. A minority will sail boats. A minority will focus on re-engineering their bodies, roleplay or do robot battles.
And the government will need to cater to all of these minorities.
The Self-Focused Minorities
Another point made by Hazzikostas is that the minorities are extremely self-focused. As he puts it –
“…due to the cooperative nature of the game, players tend to make connections with others who favor a similar playstyle. I’m generalizing a bit here, and there are certainly exceptions, but I’d guess that a typical Gladiator-level player probably doesn’t have a WoW social group that consists of people who mostly solo-level alts and explore the world. And most small friends-and-family guilds don’t spend a lot of time talking to competitive Mythic raiders. So when there’s a change, or a feature, that is aimed at a portion of the game that isn’t your personal playstyle, it’s easy and in fact natural to have the sense that “everyone” dislikes it.”
Hazzikostas is essentially talking about group polarization – a phenomenon that occurs in groups in which people agree with each other. Their views resonate between each other, and the group member become more polarized in their opinions. In a way, they become detached from the complex reality of each situation, and become unable to consider things from other points of view.
Group polarization is happening in the real world too, and it’s gaining speed. Ezra Klein recently wrote about political polarization and how it’s becoming an issue in the United States. People are becoming more polarized in their political views, and part of it has to do with the virtual world. In the past, you would’ve needed to interact with people from other factions everywhere you went. Today, Facebook automatically makes sure via its algorithms that most of your interactions are with the people who think the same as you do. As a result, people are essentially segregating themselves willingly into self-selecting groups, and their views become more polarized, so that each group finds it more difficult to agree with the other groups than ever before.
A Mirror for the Future
In those two aspects at least, World of Warcraft is a mirror of our future. As we reach a state of abundance in food and shelter, we will start identifying ourselves according to our hobbies and our interests. A world of abundance would therefore also be a world of minorities. And due to the virtual nature of much of that world, those minorities would find it more difficult to agree with each other than ever before.
It just might be the in the long-term, the only viable solution would be to essentially create a different world for every kind of minority. This proposition is, of course, impossible in the physical world where resources are limited by their nature. It can be achieved, though, in the interaction between the physical and the virtual worlds.
In the case of World of Warcraft, the virtual environment ensures that funds are essentially unlimited. Blizzard sets the challenges and the rewards, which are virtual in nature. Luckily for us, many aspects of our lives in the future are going to be virtual as well. As virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) become part of our lives, we will receive highly personalized and individualized information from physical reality. In many cases, the virtual layer of reality will allow us to transcend the physical bottom layer.
To understand that, consider that in twenty years at most, many of us are likely to walk around with augmented reality goggles over our eyes. These will provide an additional virtual layer over everything that we see. In that way, a signpost on the street can consist of just a white background and a QR code in the physical world. The AR goggles, however, will translate the QR code into a personal ad that will fit specifically for the individual using the goggles. Similarly, every house can be virtually transformed into a palace, by wearing an AR device. A palace, or a cave, or a torture dungeon, or a boat. To each minority – their own.
World of Warcraft is a virtual world, in which players enjoy a state of abundance. In a way, it serves as a social or political studies lab, and the insights we gain from it can be valuable. Those insights can help us better understand the future of a world of abundance, and of a world in which the virtual and the physical layers become intermixed. If you want to know what the future holds in store for us – you probably want to keep on watching how World of Warcraft evolves.
A while ago I’ve written in this blog about flying cars, and how we should start seeing them in our sky en masse towards 2035. It’s always nice to check on such forecasts and see how they’re progressing along and are reinforced by recent events. So here’s an update, composed of two recent news from April: one of them is basically an eye candy, while the other could be a serious indicator that flying cars are afoot (pun fully intended).
The Eye Candy
Let’s open with the pretty and shiny stuff. It turns out an aerial innovator has just flown his own invention, the Flyboard Air, a whooping distance of 2,252 meters. He basically smashed through the old record of 275 meters, going at a height of 30 meters above water, at a top speed of around 70 km/h. That’s an impressive achievement!
Unfortunately, it doesn’t mean anything for a future of flying cars.
The main reason for my lack of enthusiasm is that the hoverboard is powered by jet fuel – A1 kerosene carried on the user’s back. As long as flying cars are powered by conventional fossil fuels, they won’t find their way into common use. Flying simply takes too much energy, and fossil fuels are too expensive and harmful to the environment to be used to power such wasteful activity. The only flying cars that have a chance to succeed are ones that operate on electricity, and that’s only if we assume that electricity is about to become abundant due to the exponential rise in solar energy use.
So this is probably just another pretty invention, but when such inventions appear on the market one after the other, one starts to see a trend. You can’t ignore the fact that aerial drones capable of carrying a human passenger begin to appear more and more on the news. Will all these innovations lead to an actual flying taxi service? Only if the two conditions I specified in the original post about flying cars come true: they need to be electric, and they need to be autonomous so that you don’t have an expensive (and prone to mistakes) human pilot.
The Flying Taxis of the Future
In the last two months, exciting things have happened for e-volo: the manufacturer of the world’s first certified Multicopter (i.e. a helicopter with multiple rotors).
The Multicopter has received a permit to fly from the German authorities in February 2016. The certified Multicopter’s first manned flight took place at the end of March, and ended with absolutely no issues. The pilot controlled the vehicle easily with a single joystick, and the Multicopter was stable and autonomous enough to retain its position automatically even when the pilot released his hand from the joystick.
The vehicle can reach a speed of up to 100 km/h, with 18 rotors powered by nine independent batteries, and a 450 kg take-off weight. The large number of rotors and batteries means that even if one of them fails, the Multicopter can still stay high in the air. Since the Multicopter relies on electric motors, it is one of the top candidates in the race to become the world’s first air taxi.
Which is exactly what e-volo, the company behind the Multicopter, is trying to do.
According to ASM International, e-volo is looking to create a new market of air taxi services. In the short term, they plan to use the personal vehicles on certain predetermined routes, where there will be no chance for collision. In the medium term, however, they are already thinking about providing the vehicles with autonomous capabilities, so that they will be able to go any way the passenger chooses. The passenger will pick the destination, and the AI will make sure that the air taxi brings him there safely.
There are encouraging indicators that air taxi services will indeed become reality by 2035, but the obstacles are still out there. We still need to develop more reliable personal aircrafts with improved autonomous functions. Also, electric flying vehicles will still require an abundance of energy for mass-scale use, and such energy will have to come from an abundant source: the Sun. That means we’ll have to keep an eye for developments in solar energy harvesting as well. Luckily, solar energy is moving forward at an exponential rate.
So, if everything comes together just right, I still stand by my original forecast: flying taxis by 2035 it is!
History is a story that will never be told fully. So much of the information is lost to the past. So much – almost all – the information is gone, or has never been recorded. We can barely make sense of the present, in which information about the events and the people behind them keeps being released every day. What chance do we have, then, at fully deciphering the complex stories underlying history – the betrayals, the upheavals, the personal stories of the individuals who shaped events?
The answer has to be that we have no way of reaching any certainty about the stories we tell ourselves about our past.
But we do make some efforts.
Medical doctors and historians are trying to make sense of biographies and ancient skeletons, in order to retro-diagnose ancient kings and queens. Occasionally they identify diseases and disorders that were unknown and misunderstood at the time those individuals actually lived. Mummies of ancient pharaohs are x-rayed, and we suddenly have a better understanding of a story that unfolded more than two thousand years ago and realize that the pharaoh Ramesses II suffered from a degenerative spinal condition.
Similarly, geneticists and microbiologists use DNA evidence to end mysteries and find conclusive endings to some historical stories. DNA evidence from bones has allowed us to put to rest the rumors, for example, that the two children of Czar Nicholas II survived the 1918 revolution in Russia.
The above examples have something in common: they all require hard work by human experts. The experts need to pore over ancient histories, analyze the data and the evidence, and at the same time have good understanding of the science and medicine of the present.
What happens, though, when we let a computer perform similar analyses in an automatic fashion? How many stories about the past could we resolve then?
We are rapidly making progress towards such achievements. Recently, three authors from Waseda University in Japan have published a new paper showing they can use a computer to colorize old black & white photos. They rely on convolutional neural networks, which are in effect a simulation of certain structures of a biological brain. Convolutional neural networks have a strong capacity for learning, and can thus be trained to perform certain cognitive tasks – like adding color to old photos. While computerized coloring has been developed and used before, the authors’ methodology seems to achieve better results than others before them, with 92.6 percent of the colored images looking natural to users.
This is essentially an expert system, an AI engine operating in a way similar to that of the human brain. It studies thousands of thousands of pictures, and then applies its insights to new pictures. Moreover, the system can now go autonomously over every picture ever taken, and add a new layer of information to it.
There are boundaries to the method, of course. Even the best AI engine can miss its mark in cases where the existing information is not sufficient to produce a reliable insight. In the examples below you can see that the AI colored the tent orange rather than blue, since it had no way of knowing what color it was originally.
But will that stay the case forever?
As I previously discussed in the Failures of Foresight series of posts on this blog, the Failure of Segregation is making it difficult for us to forecast the future because we’re trying to look at each trend and each piece of evidence on its own. Let’s try to work past that failure, and instead consider what happens when an AI expert coloring system is combined with an AI system that recognizes items like tents and associates them with certain brands, and can even analyze how many tents of each color of that brand were sold on every year – or at least what was the most favorite tent color for people at that time.
When you combine all of those AI engines together, you get a machine that can tell you a highly nuanced story about the past. Much of it is guesswork, obviously, but those are quite educated guesses.
The Artificial Exploration of the Past
In the near future, we’ll use many different kinds of AI expert systems to explore the stories of the past. Some artificial historians will discover cycles in history – princes assassinating their kingly fathers, for example – that have a higher probability to occur, and will analyze ancient stories accordingly. Other artificial historians will compare genealogies, while yet others will analyze ancient scriptures and identify different patterns of writing. In fact, such an algorithm had already been applied to the Bible, revealing that the Torah has been written by several different authors and distinguishing between them.
The artificial exploration of the past is going to add many fascinating details to stories which we’ve long thought were settled and concluded. But it also raises an important question: when our children and children’s children look back at our present and try to derive meaning from it – what will they find out? How complete will their stories of their past and our present be?
I suspect the stories – the actual knowledge and understanding of the order between events – will be even more complete than what we who dwell in the present know about.
In the not-so-far-away future, machines will be used to analyze all of the world’s data from the early 21st century. This is a massive amount of data: 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created daily, which would fill ten million blu-ray discs altogether. It is astounding to realize that 90 percent of the world’s data today has been created just in the last two years. Human researchers would not be able to make much sense of it, but advanced AI algorithms – a super-intelligence, in some ways – could actually have the tools to crosslink many different pieces of information together to obtain the story of the present: to find out what movies families had watched on a specific day, in which hotel the President of the United States stayed during a recent visit to France and what snacks he ordered on room service, and many other paraphernalia.
Are those details useless? They may seem so to our limited human comprehension, but they will form the basis for the AI engines to better understand the past, and produce better stories of it. When the people of the future will try to understand how World War 3 broke out, their AI historians may actually conclude that it all began with a presidential case of indigestion which happened at a certain French hotel, and which annoyed the American president so much that it had prevented him from making the most rational choices in the next couple of days. An hypothetical scenario, obviously.
Futuronymity – Maintaining Our Privacy from the Future
We are gaining improved tools to explore the past with, and to derive insights and new knowledge even where information is missing. These tools will be improved further in the future, and will be used to analyze our current times – the early 21st century – as well.
What does it mean for you and me?
Most importantly, we should realize that almost every action you take in the virtual world will be scrutinized by your children’s children, probably after your death. Your actions in the virtual world are recorded all the time, and if the documentation survives into the future, then the next generations are going to know all about your browsing habits in the middle of the night. Yes, even though you turned incognito mode on.
This means we need to develop a new concept for privacy: futuronymity (derived from Future and Anonymity) which will obscure our lives from the eyes of future generations. Politicians are always concerned about this kind of privacy, since they know their critical decisions will be considered and analyzed by historians. In the future, common people will find themselves under similar scrutiny by their progenies. If our current hobby is going to psychologists to understand just how our parents ruined us, then the hobby of our grandchildren will be to go to the computer to find out the same.
Do we even have the right to futuronymity? Should we hide from next generations the truth about how their future was formed, and who was responsible?
That question is no longer in the hands of individuals. In the past, private people could’ve just incinerated their hard drives with all the information on them. Today, most of the information is in the hands of corporations and governments. If we want them to dispose of it – if we want any say in which parts they’ll preserve and which will be deleted – we should speak up now.
Solar panels are undergoing rapid evolution in the last ten years. I’ve written about this in previous posts in the blog (see for example the forecast that we’ll have flying cars by 2035, which is largely dependent on the sun providing us with an abundance of electricity). The graph below is pretty much saying it all: the cost for producing just one watt of solar energy has gone down to somewhere between 1 percent and 0.5 percent of what it used to be just forty years ago.
At the same time that prices go down, we see more installations of solar panels worldwide, roughly doubling every 2-3 years. Worldwide solar capacity in 2014 has been 53 times higher than in 2005, and global solar photovoltaic installations grew 34% in 2015 according to GTM Research.
It should come as no surprise that regulators are beginning to take note of the solar trend. Indeed, two small California cities – Lancastar and Sebastopol – passed laws in 2013 requiring new houses to include solar panels on their roofs. And now, finally, San Francisco joins the fray as the first large city in the world to require solar panels on every new building.
San Francisco has a lofty goal: meeting all of its energy demands by 2025, using renewable sources only. The new law seems to be one more step towards that achievement. But more than that, the law is part of a larger principle, which encompasses the Internet of Things as well: the Activation of Everything.
The Activation of Everything
To understand the concept of the Activation of Everything, we need to consider another promising legislation that will be introduced soon in San Francisco by Supervisor Scott Wiener. Supervisor Wiener is allowing solar roofs to be replaced with living roofs – roofs that are covered with soil and vegetation. According to a 2005 study, living roofs reduce cooling loads by 50-90 percent, and reduce stormwater waste and runoff to the sewage. They retain much of the rainwater, which later goes back to the atmosphere through evaporation. They enhance biodiversity, sequester carbon and even capture pollution. Of course, not every plant can be grown efficiently on such roofs – particularly not in dry California – but there’s little doubt that optimized living roofs can contribute to the city’s environment.
Supervisor Wiener explains the reasons behind the solar power legislation in the following words –
“This legislation will activate our roofs, which are an under-utilized urban resource, to make our City more sustainable and our air cleaner. In a dense, urban environment, we need to be smart and efficient about how we maximize the use of our space to achieve goals like promoting renewable energy and improving our environment.”
Pay attention to the “activate our roofs” part. Supervisor Wiener is absolutely right in that the roofs are an under-utilized urban resource. Whether you want to use those roofs to harvest solar power or to grow plants and improve the environment, the idea is clear. We need to activate – in any means possible – our resources, so that we maximize their use.
That is what the Activation of Everything principle means: activate everything, whether by allowing surfaces and items to harvest power or resources, or to have sensing and communication capabilities. In a way, activation can also mean convergence: take two functions or services that were performed separately in the past, and allow them to be performed together. In that way, a roof is no longer just a means to provide shade and protection from the weather, but can also harvest energy and improve the environment.
The Internet of Things is a spectacular example for implementing the Activation of Everything principle. In the Internet of Things world, everything will be connected: every roof, every wall, every bridge and shirt and shoe. Every item will be activated to have added purposes. Our shirts will communicate our respiration rate to our physicians. Bricks in walls will report on their structural integrity to engineers. Bridges will let us know that they’re close to maximum capacity, and so on.
The Internet of Things largely relies on sophisticated electronic technologies, but the Activation of Everything principle is more general than that. The Activation of Everything can also mean creating solar or living roofs, or even creating walls that include limestone-secreting bacteria that can fix cracks as soon as they form.
Where else can we implement the Activation of Everything principle in the future?
The Activation of Cars
There have been many ideas to create roads that can harvest energy from cars’ movements. Unfortunately, the Laws of Thermodynamics reveal that such roads will in fact ‘steal’ that energy from passing cars, by making it more difficult for them to travel along the road. Not a good idea. The activation of roofs works well specifically because it has a good ROI (Return on Investment), with a relatively low energetic investment and large returns. Not so with energy-stealing roads.
But there’s another unutilized resource in cars – the roof. We can use the Activation principle to derive insights about the future of car roofs: hybrid cars will be covered with solar panels, which will be used to harvest energy when they’re sitting in the parking lot, and store it for the ride home.
Don’t get the math wrong: cars with solar roofs won’t be able to drive endlessly. In fact, if they rely only on solar power, they’ll barely even crawl. However, they will be able to power the electrical devices in the car, and trucks may even use solar energy on long journeys, to cool the wares they carry. If the cost of solar panel installation continues to go down, these uses could be viable within the decade.
The Activation of Farmlands
Farmlands are being activated today in many different ways: from sensors all over the field, and sometimes in every tree trunk, to farmers supplementing their livelihood by deploying solar panels and ‘farming electricity’. Some are combining both solar panels and crop and animal farming by spreading solar panels at a few meters height above the field, and growing plants that can make the most of the limited sunlight that gets to them.
The Activation of the Air
Even the air around us can be activated. Aerial drones may be considered an initial attempt to activate the sky by filling them with flying sensors, but they are large, cumbersome and interfere with aerial traffic and with the view. However, we’ll be able to activate air in various other ways in the future, such as smart dust – extremely small sensors with limited wireless connectivity that will transmit data about their whereabouts and the conditions there.
The Activation of Food
Food is one of the only things that have barely been activated so far. Food today serves only two goals: to please by tasting great, and to nourish the body. According to the principle of Activation, however, food will soon serve several other purposes. Food items could be used to deliver therapeutics or sensors into the body, or possibly be produced with built-in biocompatible electronics and LEDs to make the food look better on the plate.
As human beings, we’ve always searched for ways to optimize efficiency and to make the best use of the limited resources we have. One of those limited resources is space, which is why we try to activate – add functions – to every surface and item today.
It’s fascinating to consider how the Activation of Everything will shape our world in the next few decades. We will have sensors everywhere, solar panels everywhere, batteries and electronics everywhere. It will be a world where nothing is as it seems at first glance anymore. An activated world – a living world indeed.
Far away into the future, when people look back at the 20th century, they’ll say that it was the century when mankind has truly begun rejecting Nature.
What is “Nature”? That term, which some of us regard so highly today, is simply the current products of an ongoing evolutionary process – just the same as us. Human beings are a similar product of an evolutionary process which has left us with physical, hormonal and mental characteristics that have served us well in the prehistorical past, but are far from beneficial in our present society.
The most impressive way in which we’ve rejected Nature in the 20th century is probably with the invention and proliferation of use of birth control measures.
The 20th century has seen women reject Nature with the establishment of the first permanent birth-control clinic in 1921, where women were taught how to use a cervical cap, in a time when distribution of birth control information was illegal by law in the United States. In 1957, the FDA approved the first contraceptive pill to be taken orally, but only “for severe menstrual disorders,” which has led to an unusually large number of women suddenly reporting severe menstrual disorders. Those women were desperate to escape the decrees of Nature which have been enforced on their bodies without their willingness or consent. Just how much do they want that? According to a series of 2012 surveys in developing countries, the number of women who want to avoid pregnancy has reached 867 million out of 1520 million, or 57%. Many of those women want to promote their careers or expand their education before having a child. In short, they want to fulfill their potential as human beings instead of plodding blindly along the path evolution has set for them. They want to choose for themselves.
Society, of course, has been trying to hold them back in the meantime. While it is no longer illegal to use contraceptives, the clergy is still speaking harshly against such practices. Even the currently reigning Pope Francis has not authorized the use of contraceptives, and Pope Pius XII explained in 1951 that the teaching against contraceptives –
“is in full force today, as it was in the past, and so will be in the future also, and always, because it is not a simple human whim, but the expression of a natural and divine law”
Society keeps on holding people to the standards of that ‘natural and divine law’, even if those human beings aren’t catholic. Breastfeeding, for example, has been promoted in recent decades as contributing to the baby’s health, wellbeing and development. Now new evidence begins to appear that contradicts some of these claims. Specifically, it seems studies from the last 25 years that have compared between breastfed babies and non-breastfed ones, have not ruled out some important economic, social and cultural confounding factors. When those factors are taken into account, it turns out that breastfeeding is marginally better, at best, for babies.
Does that mean women shouldn’t breastfeed? Of course not. There are plenty of studies out there showing that breastfeeding has benefits for mothers as well as for babies. But we shouldn’t forget that it has its share of issues as well: for many it’s a painful, stressful and time-consuming exercise, making it difficult for women to continue advancing their careers, education and yes, their sex lives too. This is a noble sacrifice many mothers make – but what if it’s not needed after all? What if our technology has already improved formulas enough to replace breastfeeding with no damage to babies?
I fear that even in that case, many people will remain convinced that “breast is best”. Why? They will say that it’s natural, that it’s just the way Nature designed us. And they won’t consider that just a hundred years ago, it was deemed unnatural and illegal for women to use contraceptives, and that two hundred years ago life-saving vaccines were considered unnatural too.
This all means that we need to be more suspicious towards arguments that advocate for the ‘natural means’. The scientific evidence for ‘breast is best’ for babies seems to have been shaky right from the outset, and I suspect that had it not resonated so well with our natural fallacy and bias, the scientific and medical establishment would not have accepted them as easily.
There is a widespread perception that Nature is an infallible and benevolent mistress. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Nature is that semi-random evolutionary process which has shaped us in ways that would’ve been beneficial (occasionally) ten-thousand years ago, but which now come into conflict with our modern values and ways of life. Every aspect of our biology and psych that is considered ‘natural’ should (and will) be scrutinized carefully in the 21st century, and if it does not fit our modern values – it should be reconsidered.
Does that mean we should tell women not to give birth to children, or to avoid breastfeeding them? Of course not. We should, however, give them the choice over their bodies.
Even though, you know, that sort of thinking would’ve been considered unnatural a hundred years ago.
Last week, the most famous monster in the world has finally been discovered: Nessie, the Loch Ness monster, has been found. It is nine meters long, with a long and truly monstrous neck. The abomination currently resides some 200 meters below the surface of the water, where it is waiting for no one in particular. Because, you see, it’s a film prop.
The prop was built for a Sherlock Holmes movie back in 1969, and unfortunately sunk below the surface and never came back up. It has now been discovered by an underwater drone equipped with sonar imaging, operated by Norwegian company Kongsberg Maritime.
This is an amusing story, of course, but it holds tantalizing hints to the future of conspiracies in a world that is rapidly becoming transparent. In a not-so-distant future, we are going to have drones and satellites mapping out every piece of land on Earth, whether it be at the North Pole, in the deepest Amazonian jungles, or on the bottom of the ocean. We are going to be better acquainted with the Earth than ever before.
Robotic drones will not be the only ones to watch over the Earth. We will take part in that venture, too.
In the past, if you would’ve observed a UFO in the sky, or an Abominable Snowman with big feet, or a vampire draining its victim’s blood, you would’ve needed to run away swiftly to get your bulky camera and obtain a proof for the thing you saw. Today, everyone has a smartphone with a high-quality camera in their pockets. Citizens document police brutality, gang wars, and random acts of kindness using these devices. And yet, despite the fact that suddenly everyone can record anything they see, no reliable evidence for the existence of UFOs, yetis or (living) Loch Ness monsters has come up.
The lack of evidence, in an age when everything becomes known, does not seem to bother the general public. A 2012 survey revealed that 36 percent of the American population believe that UFOs are real, which is approximately the same number as uncovered in a Canadian 2008 survey. This is hardly surprising: we’ve only had smartphones for nine years now, and society has not yet reshaped its myths around the idea that anything that happens in the corporeal world is bound to be recorded and analyzed.
In the long term, however, cryptozoology – the search for mythical creatures – will become obsolete and subject to ridicule, even more than it is today.
But conspiracy theories will live on. In fact, they may even become more powerful than they currently are.
The Future of Conspiracies
Conspiracy theories have no formal definition accepted by all, but for the purpose of this post we can accept Sunstein and Vermeule’s definition that they are –
“…an effort to explain some event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who have also managed to conceal their role.”
Conspiracies are often used by human beings to explain why bad things happen. We are, after all, rational animals, and we look for reasons for everything that happens around us. We search for patterns and for stories that fit those patterns. For example, we have a tendency towardsproportionality bias – our automatic belief that big events, like the JFK assassination, must be related to big causes and can’t be the result of a work of a single madman.
Conspiracy theorists also rely on cherry picking – taking a large volume of information and picking out of it the pieces which support a certain pattern while ignoring the rest.
In the future, we will have an abundance of data. However, data does not lead automatically to insights, knowledge and understanding. These rely on careful analysis of the data, usually performed by experts who understand how to suggest and falsify hypotheses and how to differentiate between authentic readings and noise. The plethora in data, therefore, will lead to plenty of ‘evidence’ which conspiracy theorists will use to support their ideas.
Why Should You Be Concerned?
Why should this development concern you? Because conspiracy theories can proliferate rapidly in the online world and on social networks. If you’re a business or a government agency that releases data to the public, you should be aware that some conspiracy theorists will mine that data someday. When they do – they will find some correlations there that they could use to support their ideas. And when they find those and post them online, you can expect twitstorm, a Facebook massively shared post, or a viral Youtube clip – all of which will severely damage the reputation of your organization.
To counter that threat, businesses and government agencies should start developing a new role: an anti-conspiracy officer. It is not enough to rely on the new-media experts to calm a twitstorm – they know how to use the medium, but they don’t have the necessary understanding of the content. Anti-conspiracy officers will need to work together with the new-media experts to counter new conspiracy theories by providing correct analyses of the existing data, and presenting them in a way that everyone can understand.
Today, we have public intellectuals – calling themselves Skeptics – as such anti-conspiracy officers acting on behalf of the public. These include Steven Novella, Neil deGrasse Tyson, PZ Myers, and many others. As far as I’m aware, they do not receive compensation for companies or from governments for their time and effort handling conspiracy theories on social networks in real-time.
Maybe it’s time to start funding these skeptical exercises in a more organized way.
We gain better and more powerful tools to record and document everything that’s going on in the world, but most of humanity still does not have the necessary thinking tools and methods to derive valuable and truthful insights out of the collected data. Conspiracies will likely thrive in this environment, but we can hinder their proliferation and growth on the internet by educating the public.