Three Stories for the Future of Food

A large future-oriented organization has recently asked me to write three stories about the future of food in 2050. The organization’s researchers came up with three scenarios for the future of food – a dystopian one, a positive one, and a neutral one (“Business As Usual”) – and I was recruited to write a story about each scenario.

The organization in question gave me permission to share the early drafts of these stories here, so – here they are, and I hope you enjoy them. Comments are always welcome.

 

The Son, the Father, and the H. Cockroach – a story for the dystopian future

“Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.”       – Genesis 9:3

 

If there’s one thing I hate worse than cannibals, it’s interrogating them.

“Tell me what you did,” I steadied my face and let no feeling show. “We already found your son’s corpse, half-eaten. We know you were there. Let’s get this over with.”

The suspect, shackled securely to the interrogation chair, just stared at me with no expression. I banged my fist on the table.

“Tell me! You weren’t starving like everyone. I saw your house, your lab. You’ve got some money on you. You have food. So why did you do it?!”

Instead of answering, he asked me a question of his own. His voice was thick, hoarse.

“Do you remember the day the ocean rose up and swallowed New York City? That same year, in 2035, Mumbai and Osaka were also gone. Nothing remained the same after that. That was the year my son was born.”

I grated my teeth. I could never make up my mind which of the cannibals were worse: the total whackos, or the cold-hearted ones. This guy looked like a prime material for the first category. But I let him go on. He was probably digging his own grave here.

“Tammer was beautiful.” The man said slowly, almost to himself. He wasn’t even looking at me. “When the world starting going mad, he kept me sane – I had to look after him, after his mother died in the first food riots. Even when the hurricanes came and destroyed all the crops, I made sure he still had something to eat. I paid for milk, for food, and when I had to, I stole it. All for him. And after a few years like that, of travelling from one ruined city to another, I finally settled down with the H-cockroaches.”

I felt my upper lip curling, but didn’t say anything. The son’s body was discovered in the farm.

“It’s a small farm.” He said, still staring into the air. “When Tammer was just ten years old, he got excited about the H-cockroaches. Thought they could be used to feed everyone. I told him nobody likes to eat cockroaches, but he was right. What else can you grow when the weather is so volatile that no field remains safe for long? When even the most fertile soil is parched into sand, and no water is available? I started farming H-cockroaches, yeah. Nobody liked it – some people got sick to their stomachs when they saw the farm from the inside. But they all bought the meat flour anyway. They wanted to survive. For me it was a way to earn money, but for Tammer… He actually felt like he was saving the world.”

The man drew a shaky breath.

“Right up to the point when they ate him.”

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Dystopian story – Second Part

“The H-cockroaches ate your son?” I struggled with the concept. “Seriously? That’s your defense?”

The suspect looked resigned.

“I know it sounds crazy – ” He started. I didn’t let him finish.

“Not crazy. Just a damn poor excuse! Admit you’re a cannibal, and let’s get it over with. You were just hungry, right? We found your son’s skeleton with no flesh left on it. I understand. Everybody is hungry today. Nobody has enough to eat. Just say the words, and we’ll stop all this beating around the bush and send you to – “

“He wanted to help everyone.” The man interjected. “He knew how bad things were around the world. He always said that the H-cockroaches were a good start if we wanted to bring food to everybody’s table. Those genetic engineers who created them really knew what they were doing, before everything went to hell. That’s why they nicknamed them holy cockroaches. They’re full of fats, proteins, sugars, can live in dense environments and eat pretty much anything. They’re much better than any other insect anyone ever tried to grow for food, but they’re just not good enough. They lay too little eggs.”

“I don’t care about the H-cockro – “

“You should care!” He slammed his shackled fists on the chair’s armrests. Then he lowered his eyes, and repeated in a whisper. “You should care, because my son did what nobody else could: he found a way to influence them. Where all the experts had failed, he actually made a breakthrough. He found out that they like meat.”

I snickered. “Everybody knows H-cockroaches like to eat meat. Too bad there are almost no cows left. And yeah, they’ll eat human corpses too. So what?”

“Not corpses.” He said. “And not animals. The one thing that really makes them go nuts is human meat. And not dead, either.” He paused to take a shuddering breath. “I don’t know why that is. Why do lobsters taste horrible if you kill them before you cook them? Probably some chemical we release at the moment of death, or – or something. But Tammer found out that if he… if he let them bite him… nibble on his skin… they would lay more eggs…”

I felt the bile rising in my throat, and had to swallow several times.

“When they became more ferocious, he wanted to stop,” he whispered. “But I told him to go on. We needed the money. We had more H-cockroaches than ever. I was going to rent another farm, but then, today some of the seals broke loose when he entered the farm. The H-cockroaches, they knew him by then. They… they knew his smell, his taste. They…”

He could not go on. Neither could I. I stood up shakily and went to the interrogation room’s door.

That was when the Monsantec executive came into the room.

“Sergeant.” He said briskly. “Please leave the room. This man is ours now.”

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Dystopian Story – Third Part

I stated at the Monsantech man. The fact he was even here, in the innermost sanctum of the police station, showed just how much power large firms held over the authorities today. Or maybe just how easy it was to bribe officers today. Both, really. But I wasn’t letting my prisoner go that easily. I looked the man in the suit square in the face.

“This man is a criminal – “ I began, before he cut me off.

“I listened to the conversation from outside the door.” He said briskly. “And sergeant, I don’t care what you think he is. He’s ours now, and you’d best forget all that you heard here. Forget this ever happened.”

“Why?” I demanded. “What do you want with him?”

“That’s none of your business, sergeant.” He replied easily. “Now, do I have to… call the police?”

I tensed. He must’ve had connections in high places, and money to spend on creating connections in lower ones. Still, I refused to give up any ground.

“You want his technology.” I guessed. “You want him to teach you to grow better H-cockroaches.”

I watched his face carefully. It didn’t budge.

“But… you don’t really need him.” I went on, fumbling through the conundrum. “You already heard the secret from him. The H-cockroaches need to eat human beings while… while they’re still alive.”

The man looked at me strangely. It took me a moment to understand that he actually looked sorrowful.

“We checked the farm in question.” He said. “The H-cockroaches are proliferating wildly, laying thousands – millions – of eggs. More than Monsantech has ever managed to make them with any… conventional… means.”

“So you’re going to feed your H-cockroaches with living bodies?” I demanded. “The police may have something to say about that.”

“It’s not going to be like that.” The Monsantech man said, almost gently. “Now that we know the direction we need to take in our research, we’ll find a way to replicate the effect that live human flesh has on the H-cockroaches. Maybe it’s some human pheromone we haven’t discovered yet, or some other chemical. Give us a couple of years, and Monsantech will have the best H-cockroaches in the world – enough to feed everyone.”

His gaze shifted to the prisoner, who wasn’t paying any attention to the conversation, trapped in his own world of misery. “But until we get to that point, sir, I’m afraid your son’s sacrifice will have to remain out of the public eye. We can’t let our competitors gain that knowledge. That won’t do at all.”

He sent one last somber look my way, shook his head in resignation, and left the room while I was still gawking, dumbfounded. The door clang shut behind him. I heard the key turning and turned desperately to the exit. The hatch opened from the outside, and the executive’s voice spoke once more.

“You have my apologies, sergeant. Monsantech can’t afford having that secret out in the world yet.”

He paused, then added – “I’ll send a team to collect you soon, and bring you to our research facility. Your bodies will help us test this new approach. Your wife and kids will be taken care of, financially. We’ll tell them there was a cockroach accident. Eventually, because of your sacrifice, the world will become better place.”

 


 

A PrePac Story – A Story for the Business As Usual Scenario

“If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the good things of the land;”      – Isaiah 1:19

 

“I need you to talk with Tammer.” My visitor said. “To make him cut out his nonsense.”

“Your son, right?” I asked. “What’s wrong with him?”

He rolled his eyes. “Isn’t it your job to find out? You’re the shrink here. Just talk with him. He’ll probably spill everything. He doesn’t do that with me any longer.”

I crossed my legs on the therapist chair and scrutinized the father before giving an answer. His clothes indicated his wealth, as did his manners. I certainly didn’t want to lose him as a client. Still, some things needed to be said out loud.

“I’m a psychoanalyst.” I agreed. “And I can certainly meet with your son. But the more information you can give me about his issues, the better – and more quickly – I can help him deal with them.”

The man gave an impatient sigh, then stood up and started pacing around the room.

“You know about PrePacs, right?” His tone indicated that a negative answer would not be well accepted.

“Yes, of course.” I told him. Everybody knew about PrePacs. “What about them?”

“I invented them.” He said curtly. “Years ago.”

I nodded. That would explain his wealth.

Then, I waited.

He didn’t take well to the silence. Rich men never do.

“Everybody told me it would be a mistake.” He growled. “The dietitians said the PrePacs had too much sugar in them, too much fat. But I knew that was what people really wanted. And look where we are today: almost everyone has at least one PrePac a day. We have PrePacs for carnivores, for vegetarians, for vegans, you name it. Hell, we even have PrePacs for babies.”

“Some…” I cleared my throat and smoothed my dress. “Some say they’re practically addictive, with all that sugar. And certainly unhealthy.”

“Bah,” he waved the comment away. “Of course my competitors would say that. But because of PrePacs, even the poorest beggar on the street can still feed himself. Nobody goes hungry anymore.”

“And… Your son? Tammer?” I reminded him gently.

“Tammer.” His face contorted, and the mask of self confidence slipped away. His eyes were anguished. “Nobody goes hungry, except for Tammer.”

 

Business As Usual Story – Second Part

For a boy whose father invented the PrePacs, Tammer was awfully skinny. He looked like a good kid. Big brown eyes, earnest expression, determination shining through. He didn’t waste time after coming into my office.

“I know why my father sent me to see you.” He said without preamble. “I’m not going to do it.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Do what?”

“Stop my hunger strike.” He said. “I’m not eating anything solid, until he gets rid of the PrePacs. Takes them off the shelves. Denounces them publicly.”

I held my tongue again. Like father, like son. He couldn’t deal with the silence either.

“Those things are an abomination.” He said heatedly. “Have you seen the statistics about obesity? The year is 2050 and we only now beat world hunger, yay for us. But 75 percent of all people are obese. Of those, nearly half are morbidly obese – so they suffer from a higher frequency of heart diseases, diabetes, asthma, even cancer! And you know what’s more?”

I kept quiet. He leaned forward with a feverish look in his eyes.

“You know who’s obese? The bottom 80 percentile of society. Not people like you or me or my father. The rest of humanity. The ones who can’t afford fresh food, or don’t have time to cook a healthy meal for themselves because they have to take on two or three jobs just to support their families. They’re the ones who buy the PrePacs. It’s poison for them and for their kids – but they keep eating it.”

“And you’re not willing to be part of it.” I reasoned. “So you’re starving yourself, to make your father see sense.”

He sat back in his chair, suddenly tired. I could see his cheekbones, sharp and distinct under his thin skin. How long has he not eaten any solids? His body was obviously wasting away.

“Tell me something,” I said, “have you considered that maybe, just maybe, your father doesn’t realize the effect PrePacs have on people, because they don’t impact the people he really cares about…?”

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Business As Usual Story – Third Part

“You’re a genius, doc!” The father stormed into my office. “I don’t know how you did it, but he’s filling up again!”

I raised my eyes from my notebook. It’s been an entire month since I last saw Tammer, and I figured his father had simply given up on my services.

“Welcome back.” I said. “Can you tell me what happened?”

“It only took a day after you had your little pep-talk with him.” He announced. “And then he started eating again. And not just any kind of food, but my own brand! He’s consuming PrePacs like there’s no tomorrow – five of them every day! That’s the best outcome I could look for!”

I looked at the picture he put on my table. Tammer was not nearly as gaunt as before. His cheeks seemed to be bulging, a somewhat yellowish expression to his face. He was in the middle of shoving an entire PrePac into his mouth.

Alarm bells began clanging softly in my mind.

“I strongly advise you to talk with him.” I said. “Tammer is using the PrePac diet to get you to understand his concerns. He wants you to become more emotionally connected to his struggle against obesity. If you don’t pay heed, you may find that his overeating may be just as harmful to his health as his hunger strike.”

“Nonsense.” He dismissed my words. “The PrePacs are totally healthy. They feed the world. Everyone loves them.”

“Nonetheless,” I said, “I know it’s none of my concern, but maybe it’s time to cut down on some of those sugars and fats in the PrePacs? Maybe talk it over with Tammer and reach some kind of an agreement? You know, whatever’s in those PrePacs is going to affect him directly now.”

“I’ll think about it.” He promised. Then thought some more. “We made the world a better place already, and we can make it even better, like you say. Maybe the PrePacs can be healthier. But not right now. Once we control the market and I can be sure our competitors can’t outflank us somehow, we’ll change some components of the PrePac. It’ll happen eventually.”

He left shortly after that, and I was left with my thoughts. I took another look at Tammer’s picture, in which obesity started settling in, and wondered who will give up on the PrePacs first – the son, the father, or the world.

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Together – A Story for the Optimistic Scenario

“Better a small serving of vegetables with love than a fattened calf with hatred.”      – Proverbs 15:17

 

I opened my eyes groggily, and remembered what day it was, and what had to happen today. My son Tammer was still working in the U-farm, so I had some time for myself. I brushed my teeth slowly, then moved on to the kitchen for my daily breakfast. The super-oven recommended an omelette with beans and spinach, for my heart. I accepted, and watched dully as the robotic hands worked deftly with the kitchen tools, complemented by nozzles that could spray dough, egg whites, molten cheese or even meat, to create an infinite variety of delicious dishes. It only took a minute before the smell of sizzling scrambled egg filled the kitchen.

I ate without much joy. I didn’t want to go on with the day. We could become rich today, but at what price?

The omelette was soon gone from the plate – even as morose as I felt, I couldn’t help but enjoy the taste, which was suited specifically for my taste buds. I rose up from the chair, and opened the door into the U-farm, where Tammer was already tinkering with the robots.

I paused for a moment to look at him. Really look. He was about to turn 16 soon, as was pretty clear from his body. He was tall and gangly, his unkempt hair falling in tangles around his face, and he kept blowing it up from his eyes while he worked on his drone. He raised his eyes to me as I entered the room, and smiled.

“You’re gonna love this one, Dad.” He said excitedly, and hoisted up the drone. “I just finished working on it. It’s the upgraded version of the robot I showed you last week, and it’s going to – “

“To change the world.” I completed his sentence with him. He laughed in agreement, and released the drone into the air. It immediately flew out of the open window.

I raised my eyebrow at Tammer.

“Just wait.” He promised. “Poachy will be back soon.”

“Poachy?” I asked.

“Its name!” He said exasperatedly. “Watch!”

It only took a minute before Poachy came back, buzzing quietly into the room. It carried a basket, and from what I could see, it was full of apples. Tammer waved at the robot, and it turned towards him. One mechanized claw reached into the basket, picked an apple, and threw it unerringly at Tammer’s head.

My son expected that. Hell, I was sure he programmed the robot that way, just for the show. He snatched the apple right from the air, and grinned at me. Poachy did a little dance in the air to indicate its appreciation, then landed on the floor and went silent.

“Take a bite, Dad.” Tammer offered me the apple.

I bit into it. Fresh, crisp, sweet and sour at the same time. Better than any apple I’ve ever had before.

“Good, right?” Tammer smiled at me. “It was plucked from the apple tree that grows on the roof next to us, on the top of the neighboring skyscraper.”

“Stolen, you mean.” Said a stranger’s voice, and we both turned around in surprise. My heart sank in my chest.

It was time for Tammer to meet his new employers.

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Story for Optimistic Scenario – Second Part

I went to the visitor and shook his hand. He was meticulously well-groomed, and fashionably attired in a three part business suit. I could feel Tammer’s eyes on the back of my head.

“Welcome to our U-farm.” I said, fumbling with the words. “Sir.”

The man nodded at me, then glanced at Poachy.

“Let’s see if I understand it correctly.” He said. “You programmed this robot – all on your own and with no assistance – to autonomous fly to a neighboring U-farm, pick up a fruit, and bring it over to you. Is that right?”

Tammer didn’t hesitate. He was proud of his creation.

“Yes sir.” He said excitedly. “But – but it didn’t steal the fruit. I asked the U-farm owner for permission, and he agreed to it.”

“I see.” Said the visitor. “But the robot could, hypothetically, reach into any U-farm, right?”

Tammer bobbed his head. “Yeah, that’s the idea. The city is packed full of U-farms – urban farms. Every skyscraper holds dozens of them, with open windows to let the air in. Every rooftop provides food today. But it takes a lot of time to get the food off from the rooftops, process and redistribute it via the commercial retailers – the supermarkets and the grocery stores. Poachy could change all that. It could pluck fruit straight from tree branches, or even use its hands to pull carrots and other vegetables out of the soil.”

“Stealing.” The man stated. “Stealing from hard-working farmers.”

Tammer’s eyes narrowed. “Most U-farms today are owned by Monsantech anyway, and only robots work in them.” He said with restraint. “It costs too much for ordinary people – like my dad and me – to keep a U-farm, because it’s so damn expensive to deliver the yields down the building, and the retailers pay us pennies anyway. Poachy could change that. If every family has a robot like Poachy, they could reach agreements with U-farms smallholders all around the city, so that they’ll get the best and most fresh products every day, every hour, for a fee. It would – “

He stopped and glanced at me. I kept silent. He lowered his head and muttered, “It would change the world.”

“No,” said the man. “It won’t. Because as of right now, it is no longer yours. Kindly hand it over, and make your way to the exit. This U-farm and all the robots in it are now Monsantech’s legal property. Congratulations, by the way – you are now millionaires. You can thank you father for that.”

I hanged my head low. For a millionaire, I wasn’t feeling all that swell with myself.money-2724241.jpg

 

Story for the Optimistic Scenario – Third Part

“Dad?” Tammer turned to me. “What is he talking about?”

I mumbled something. I wasn’t sure myself what it was.

“Dad!” Tammer’s voice was louder, more frantic. “What did you do?!”

“He sold us your inventions.” The Monsantech executive told him calmly. “Plus this wreck of a U-farm.”

“You can’t take them away!” Cried Tammer. “And it won’t do you any good. I issued a patent on them to protect them from vultures like you!”

“We know.” Said the man, nonplussed. “Your father was kind enough to include the patents in the deal as well.”

He crouched next to the boy, his face and tone surprisingly gentle.

“He arranged for a better future for you, boy. That’s what fathers do. And he also profited off your invention. You’ll find out that that’s what people do, too, and it’s a lesson best learned early.”

Tammer looked at me again, and the hurt expression on his face gave me some strength to resist. I glowered at the executive sullenly. “The deal is not signed yet.” I said.

He rose up to his feet again and laughed at me, the gentleness all gone. “Look around you,” he said scornfully. “Your U-farm is failing, miserably. When’s the last time you could pay for a full day of electrical power to activate the robots? There’s a reason you called us and told us about your son’s inventions. You need the money. Think about all the things you could use it for. You could quit working for the rest of your days. You could even send this fine young man to get some proper education in the best universities. The deal is practically sealed – we just need your signature on it.”

I hesitated, then turned away from him to look into Tammer’s eyes.

“We need the money, Son.” I told him. “You don’t get it, but – “

He cut me short.

“I get it, Dad. I really do. But you can’t make a better future by sacrificing what we have right here, right now! Please, dad, just trust me. I know I can make the system work better. It’s going to – “ He hesitated. “It’s going to make things better for everyone, to help so many people!”

His hand touched mine, beseeching. I could feel its heat, full of warmth and life. Full of potential for a better future. Full of an optimism which I no longer possessed. But maybe I could borrow some of it.

I closed my hand around his.

The executive clicked his pen and stepped forward expectantly. I turned to him.

“Get out.” I said curtly. I didn’t give him time to talk back at me. Tammer’s hand pulsed in mine. “Get off my property. It’s still mine, and no deal is being signed today.”

I took a shuddering breath, and went on. “I know I’ve made some pretty bad decisions in my life before, but it ends here.” I was babbling by now, tears in my eyes. “You’re not taking away my son’s future with some promises for eventual big win. Nothing’s going to get better eventually. Right here, right now – “

Tammer squeezed my hand. Neither one of us let go.

“We’re going to change the world.”

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From Vision to Reality: The Journey to Create Molecular Assemblers

Some 31 years ago, all the way back in 1986, the futurist Eric K. Drexler published a new book – Engines of Creation, in which he wrote about his vision of molecular assemblers. Those machines – each too small to be seen by the naked eye – were supposed to take atoms and put them together in a myriad of shapes and combinations. While others, like Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, discusssed this idea before, Drexler was the first to fully consider its implications, and has ignited the imagination – and motivation – of millions around the world.

Why are such molecular assemblers so important? Because everything is made of atoms: the earth, our food, our medications and even you and me. That means that these molecular assemblers can be the ultimate recycling machines.

According to Drexler’s vision, the molecular assemblers of the future would be able to –

  • Take apart feces and urine, and reconstruct them into steaming-hot steaks;
  • Capture carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) from the atmosphere, and use the atoms to create usable plastic or even oil;
  • Create sheets of perfect diamond (one of the simplest structures in nature – ‘just’ carbon atoms attached to each other;
  • Create all forms of medication, at everyone’s house.

And as Drexler himself beautifully put it –

“COAL AND DIAMONDS, sand and computer chips, cancer and healthy tissue: throughout history, variations in the arrangement of atoms have distinguished the cheap from the cherished, the diseased from the healthy. Arranged one way, atoms make up soil, air, and water; arranged another, they make up ripe strawberries. Arranged one way, they make up homes and fresh air; arranged another they make up ash and smoke.”

The possibilities and potential are practically endless. Only thing is – thirty one years after Drexler’s burst of genius, molecular assemblers are still a vision which we are striving to fulfill.

The upside is that such assemblers are more than just a figment of the imagination. At some point in the future, we will be able to create them.

How do I know that? Because they already exist.

 

The Living Assemblers

Consider the cells in your body. Each of them is a wondrous and highly complex machine with one sole purpose: to break down certain molecules into simpler molecules and atoms, and to reconstruct those basic building blocks into more complex molecules that your body can use. These cells, in a very real sense, are molecular assemblers.

And not only that, but some cells can even create incredibly sophisticated molecular structures. Consider, for example, the Surirella spiralis – a unicellular (one-cell) organism, that secretes silica in a highly specific and accurate fashion, and thus creates a unique armor around itself. The size of this ‘spaceship’ that you see in the picture below is around 70 micro-meters, which is about the diameter of a single human hair.

Picture from Wikipedia, by Nicola Angeli/MUSE

How do cells know to create these wondrous structures, or to place molecules so precisely around themselves? They are programmed to do so, and the program is in their DNA – their genetic code.

Some biochemists are trying to genetically engineer cells to instruct them what to do. But others are trying a different approach, which has gained substantial attention these last two years, especially since three of the leaders in the field have won the 2016 Nobel prize in chemistry for creating actual molecular machines.

 

The Molecular Machines

Three researchers won the 2016 Nobel prize in chemistry: Jean-Pierre Sauvage, J. Fraser Stoddart, and Bernard L. Feringa. Put simply, those scientists all focused on creating molecular machines: machines the size of molecules, that contain several parts that move in relation to each other.

Sauvage created a molecular machine, one part of which could revolve around the other when fed with energy.

Stoddart created a ‘molecular lift’, that could raise itself above a surface, and later an developed a molecular ‘artificial muscle’ that could even bend a (very) thin gold sheet.

Picture: molecular lift. From The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2016, Popular Science Background

Finally, Feringa built molecular motors, that actually powered a molecular nano-car. The wheels of the car really did revolve, and the entire construct could race across a gold surface, which is about a cool a thing as could be.

Molecular car. Credit: University of Gronigen.

Why are all these developments important? Make no mistake: they’re not going to impact our lives in the next decare or so, but as the Nobel committee itself declared

“In terms of development, the molecular motor is at about the same stage as the electric motor was in the 1830s, when researchers proudly displayed various spinning cranks and wheels in their laboratories without having any idea that they would lead to electric trains, washing machines, fans and food processors.”

In the future – maybe twenty years away from us, but probably more – the evolved versions of these molecular motors will be everywhere. And yes, they’ll be part of the molecular assemblers whose existence Drexler forecast thirty one years ago. We are nowhere near the end of the journey into molecular engineering.

In fact, a new invention from 2017 shows that we’ve already created a working molecular assembler – even though it’s a pretty limited one. A group of biochemists led by Simone Pisano, created a molecular ‘robot’ (as they described it themselves), that could selectively pick up very specific molecules, attach them to certain sites on other molecules, and repeat the action again and again. This is a very small step towards molecular assemblers, but it is a step nonetheless, in an area in which even the tiniest developments require years of painstaking research.

Credit: Nature.

 

Conclusion: the Molecular Assembelers Are Coming

When we look at the developments in the field, and at the great achievements created by the blind watchmaker – semi-random evolutionary processes – it seems practically a certainty that at some point in the future, we will have molecular assemblers. Many science fiction authors write about that future with great confidence that it will arrive – maybe twenty or thirty years into the future, maybe a hundred or more. But arrive it will, and when it does, the human race will never lack for resources again. Quite literally, we will be able to transmute air to edible meat, and our waste into breathable air, drinkable water and edible food. It will be a period of abundance unlike any in human history before.

And all that began with the detailed vision of one futurist – Eric K. Drexler – thirty one years ago.

 


 

If you like reading about future technologies and their impact on society, you can find more posts and answers like this one in my Quora content (where this answer also appeared originally).

The Future of Bullshit Jobs

Many economists and philosophers are trying to figure out today about the future of work. What will people do once robots and autonomous systems can perform practically all tasks in the workplace better than human beings can?

Well, here’s a little well-known secret: many of us are already unemployed. Many, many more than governmental statistics indicate. We just haven’t realized it yet.

Why? Because plenty of people today are working in bullshit jobs, in the words of anthropologist David Graeber. Here’s what he has to say about bullshit jobs –

“…more and more employees find themselves… working 40 or even 50 hour weeks on paper, but effectively working 15 hours… since the rest of their time is spent organizing or attending motivational seminars, updating their facebook profiles or downloading TV box-sets.”

Think of your own job. If you work at a desk or at an office, some of your days probably look approximately like this:

  1. You come into the office in the morning.
  2. You chat with your co-workers for 15 minutes.
  3. You open your computer and chat with your friends on Facebook for another hour.
  4. You feel compelled to do some work. You open a document you began work on yesterday, work on it for ten minutes, then excuse yourself to check your e-mails, then your facebook again, then read answers on Quora (try my content for more future-related answers!), then play just one game of Solitaire…
  5. …and two hours later, you return to reality and realize you haven’t done any significant work today. You resolve to work harder, immediately after lunch.
  6. Lunch takes an hour.
  7. And then you’re drowsy for yet another hour. Luckily, that’s the time for the weekly departmental motivational seminar, during which you can safely sleep while nodding your head vigorously at the same time and grunting affirmatively.
  8. Finally, you realize with a shuddder that it’s almost the end of the workday. You feel guilty and ashamed, and so, in a concentrated effort of 1–2 hours, you actually SIT DOWN AND WORK.

And the amazing thing is that in those 1–2 hours of work, you actually complete an amount of work that used to require an entire office of secretaries to perform a few decades ago. That’s because you’re using smart and automated tools like Microsoft Office Word, Excel and Powerpoint. These tools increase productivity, so that a single person who is proficient in using them can do more in a shorter period of time.

So why do so many of us still work for eight hours a day? Why do so many people work at jobs that they know are ineffective, and in which they waste their time?

Simply put, because human beings need the illusion of being useful, or at least of doing something with their lives. They need to preserve a veneer of action – even though much of that action throughout the workday is almost entirely fictional.

Now, obviously, many of us do not work at a bullshit job… yet. But bullshit jobs form when productivity increases dramatically, which basically describes any form of work in which automation is going to have an impact. And that means that many of our jobs will become much more… bullshitty… in the future.

So – what would happen when robots take over all of our jobs? My guess is that mankind would just inflate the old jobs so that the work that can be done in ten minutes, will still engage workers for a full day. In short, we’ll all ‘work’ at bullshit jobs.

Here, I made a diagram of what it’ll look like. And you know where I did it? That’s right – at work, while answering questions on Quora.

Enjoy the future / present!

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This post was originally written as an answer to a question at Quora.  You are welcome to browse my content there and enjoy more answers about the future.

Who Will Be Remembered into the Future?

Meet Omer, my five years old son (in the picture above). He will be remembered for as long as humanity exists.

That’s pretty neat, isn’t it?

Let me explain why. Think of the great inventors, leaders and scientists of ages past: people like Alexander the Great, Isaac Newton, Plato and others. Most of them did not have a personal biographer looking over their shoulders, to record their great deeds. Even for those who did hire such a personal biographer, we only know today what they wanted us to know.

Now consider Omer. He is growing up in a period of time in which he is being monitored continuously. All the pictures I took of him, almost since the very moment he was born, are stored in Google’s and Facebook’s servers, and are being maintained and looked after continuously, so that they will be preserved for a very long time indeed. Every purchase I made for him using my credit card, has been recorded somewhere by a data merchant, and the information was sold to other companies.

As my son grows up, his smartphone will record his activities and health, his electronic devices will keep a close watch over him, and aerial drones in the sky will be able to record his movements on the ground. All of this information will be gathered effortlessly, and will be easily analyzed by AI engines to construct a picture of my son’s life.

So – in the future, we will all be remembered and recognized. Maybe not for our great inventions or prowess in battle, but for our personal, small and intimate stories and achievements. My son will know me – his father – as a real human being, full of nuances and quirks. He will know what I did tonight before going to bed, which websites I visited (yes, even if I used incognito mode – the data is still being retained by my internet service provider and Google), and what made me the man I was. And his kids – my grandchildren – will know my son’s story even better than he will know mine. And so on and on, into future generations.

In a way, I will never die for my son, and neither will you. Our stories will remain here to teach our children the lessons we’ve learned over our lives.

I sure hope they’ll know what to do with them.


 

This post was originally written as an answer to a question at Quora.  You are welcome to browse my content there and enjoy more answers about the future.

How long are you going to live?

A few years ago I lectured in a European workshop about global risks. Before me lectured one of the World Health Organization (WHO) chief officers, who presented a very interesting graph.

What he showed was basically that life expectancy is expected to keep on rising all over the world, so that by the year 2100 it’s going to reach 85–90 years in high-income countries.

Well, I was pretty astounded about that forecast, which seemed to me extremely pessimistic. I talked with him over lunch, and asked whether this forecast included all of the technologies currently being developed in university labs. I asked how the forecasts would be affected by –

  • The development of nano-robots that could hold back cancer, coronary thrombosis (heart attack), strokes and other diseases from inside the body;
  • Sophisticated techniques for genetic engineering, that could produce vaccines against cancer and other diseases;
  • Tissue engineering techniques that could repair entire tissues – sometimes while they’re still in the body;
  • Artificial intelligence engines that would provide real-time medical monitoring and consultation much more accurate than that of today’s best medical doctors;

I’m paraphrasing his answer a little, since it all happened a few years ago, but the gist of what he said was –

“No, we can’t take all that into account. The model can’t acknowledge medical breakthroughs. We know that such breakthroughs will have a dramatic impact, but we just don’t know when they’ll emerge from the lab. But I can tell you that if even 15% of the research currently being done in biomedical labs succeeds, then the forecasts will change dramatically.”

So – there is simply no good forecast that will answer the basic question of how long we’re supposed to remain alive in this century. It is entirely conceivable – indeed, even likely, as that WHO official admitted – that sometime in the next few decades, a ‘perfect storm’ of medical breakthroughs will work together to dramatically halt aging and put a stop to most old-age diseases.

There are even some reputable scientists (like George Church, who is sort of the Thomas Edison of genetic engineering) who believe we’ll be able to reverse aging within a decade.

Personally, I think it’ll take much longer than that – but even if this breakthrough comes in the next few decades, many of us should still be around and enjoy it.

Good luck!

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This post was originally written as an answer at Quora. You can read more of my thoughts about the future and my answers to questions on these topics in my channel there.

Art in the Age of AI

Let’s start with a little challenge: which of the following tunes was composed by an AI, and which by an HI (Human Intelligence)?

I’ll tell you at the end of the answer which tune was composed by an AI and which by an HI. For now, if you’re like most people, you’re probably unsure. Both pieces of music are pleasing to the ear. Both have good rhythm. Both could be part of the soundtrack of a Hollywood film, and you would never know that one was composed by an AI.

And this is just the beginning.

In recent years, AI has managed to –

  • Compose a piece of music (Transits – Into an Abyss) that was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and received praise from reviewers. [source: you can hear the performance in this link]
  • Identify emotions in photographs of people, and create an abstract painting that conveys these emotions to the viewer. The AI can even analyze the painting as it is being created, and decide whether it’s achieving its objectives [source: Rise of the Robots].
  • Write a short novel that almost won a literary prize in Japan.
  • Create a movie trailer (it’s actually pretty good – watch it here).

Now, don’t get me wrong: most of these achievements don’t even come close to the level of an experienced human artist. But AI has something that humans don’t: it’s capable of training itself on millions of samples, and constantly improve itself. That’s how Alpha Go, the AI that recently wiped the floor with Go’s most proficient players, got so good at the game: it played a few million games against itself, and discovered new strategies and best moves. It acquired an intuition for the game, and kept rapidly evolving to improve itself.

And there’s no reason that AI won’t be able to do that in art as well.

In the next decade, we’ll see AI composing music and even poems, drawing abstract paintings, and writing books and movie scripts. And it’ll get better at it all the time.

So what happens to art, when AI can create it just as easily as human beings do?

For starters, we all benefit. In the future, when you’ll upload your new YouTube clip, you’ll be able to have the AI add original music to it, which will fit the clip perfectly. The AI will also write your autobiography just by going over your Facebook and Gmail history, and if you want – will turn it into a movie script and direct it too. It’ll create new comic books easily and automatically – both the script and the drawing and coloring part – and what’s more, it’ll fit each story to the themes that you like. You want to see Superman fighting the Furry Triple-Breasted Slot Machines of Pandora? You got it.

That’s what happens when you take a task that humans need to invest decades to become really good at, and let computers perform it quickly and efficiently. And as a result, even poor people will be able to have a flock of AI artists at their beck and call.

What Will the Artists Do?

At this point you may ask yourselves what all the human artists will do at that future. Well, the bad news is that obviously, we won’t need as many human artists. The good news is that those few human artists who are left, will make a fortune by leveraging their skills.

Let me explain what I mean by that. Homer is one of the earliest poets we know of. He was probably dirt poor. Why? Because he had to wander from inn to inn, and could only recite his work aloud for audiences of a few dozen people at the time, at most. Shakespeare was much more succesful: he could have his plays performed in front of hundreds of people at the same time. And Justin Bieber is a millionnaire, because he leverages his art with technology: once he produces a great song, everyone gets is immediately via YouTube or by paying for and downloading the song on iTunes.

Great composers will still exist in the future, and they will work at creating new kinds of music – and then having the AI create variations on that theme, and earning revenue from it. Great painters will redefine drawing and painting, and they will teach the AI to paint accordingly. Great script writers will create new styles of stories, whereas the old AI could only produce the ‘old style’.

And of course, every time a new art style is invented, it’ll only take AI a few years – or maybe just a few days – to teach itself that new style. But the human creative, crazy, charismatic artists who created that new style, will have earned the status of artistic super-stars by then: the people who changed our definitions of what is beautiful, ugly, true or false. They will be the people who really create art, instead of just making boring variations on a theme.

The truly best artists, the ones who can change our outlook about life and impact our thinking in completely unexpected ways, will still be here even a hundred years into the future.

Oh, and as for the two tunes? The first one was composed by a human being and performed by Morten Faerestrand in his YouTube clip – 3 JUICY jazz guitar improv tools. The second was composed by the Algorithmic Music Composer and demonstrated in the YouTube clip – Computer-Generated Jazz Improvisation.

Did you get it right?


This post was originally written as an answer at Quora

Who’ll Win the Next War: the Tank or the Geek?

I was asked on Quora how the tanks of the future are going to be designed. Here’s my answer – I hope it’ll make you reflect once again on the future of war and what it entails.

And now, consider this: the Israeli Merkava Mark IV tank.

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Merkava Mark IV. Source: Michael Mass, Yad La-Shiryon, found on Wikipedia

It is one of the most technologically advanced tanks in the world. It is armed with a massive 120 mm smoothbore gun that fires shells with immense explosive power, with two roof-mounted machine guns, and with a 60 mm mortar in case the soldiers inside really want to make a point. However, the tank has to be deployed on the field, and needs to reach its target. It also costs around $6 million.

Now consider this: the Israeli geek (picture taken from the Israeli reality show – Beauty and the Geek). The geek is the one on the left, in case you weren’t sure.

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The common Israeli Geek. He’s the one on the left of the picture. Source: Israeli reality show – Beauty and the Geek.

With the click of a button and the aid of some hacking software available on the Darknet, our humble Israeli geek can paralyze whole institutions, governments and critical infrastructures. He can derail trains (happened in Poland), deactivate sewage pumps and mix contaminated water with drinking water (happened in Texas), or even cut the power supply to tens of thousands of people (happened in Ukraine). And if that isn’t bad enough, he could take control over the enemy female citizens’ wireless vibrators and operate it to his and/or their satisfaction (potentially happened already).

Oh, and the Israeli geek works for free. Why? Because he loves hacking stuff. Just make sure you cover the licensing costs for the software he’s using, or he might hack your vibrator next.

So, you asked – “how will futuristic tanks be designed”?

I answer, “who cares”?

 

But Seriously Now…

When you’re thinking of the future, you have to realize that some paradigms are going to change. One of those paradigms is that of physical warfare. You see, tanks were created to do battle in a physical age, in which they had an important role: to protect troops and provide overwhelming firepower while bringing those troops wherever they needed to be. That was essentially the German blizkrieg strategy.

In the digital age, however, everything is connected to the internet, or very soon will be. Not just every computer, but every bridge, every building, every power plant and energy grid, and every car. And as security futurist Marc Goodman noted in his book Future Crimes, “when everything is connected, everything is vulnerable”. Any piece of infrastructure that you connect to the internet, immediately becomes vulnerable to hacking.

Now, here’s a question for you: what is the purpose of war?

I’ll give you a hint: it’s not about driving tanks with roaring engines around. It’s not about soldiers running and shooting in the field. It’s not even about dropping bombs from airplanes. All of the above are just tools for achieving the real purpose: winning the war by either making the enemy surrender to you, or neutralizing it completely.

And how do you neutralize the enemy? It’s quite simple: you demolish the enemy’s factories; you destroy their cities; you ruin your enemy’s citizens morale to the point where they can’t fight you anymore.

In the physical age, armies clashed on the field because each army was on the way to the other side’s cities and territory. That’s why you needed fast tanks with awesome armanent and armor. But today, in the digital age, hackers can leap straight over the battlefield, and make war directly between cities in real-time. They can shut down hospitals and power plants, kill everyone with a heart pacemaker or an insulin pump, and make trains and cars collide with each other. In short, they could shut down entire cities.

So again – who needs tanks?

 

And Still…

I’m not saying there aren’t going to be tanks. The physical aspect of warfare still counts, and one can’t just disregard it. However, tanks simply don’t count as much in comparison to the cyber-security aspects of warfare (partly because tanks themselves are connected nowadays).

Again, that does not mean that tanks are useless. We still need to figure out the exact relationships between tanks and geeks, and precisely where, when and how needs to be deployed in the new digital age. But if you were to ask me in ten years what’s more important – the tank or the geek – then my bet would definitely be on the geek.

 


If this aspect of future warfare interests you, I invite you to read the two papers I’ve published in the European Journal of Futures Research and in Foresight, about future scenarios for crime and terror that rely on the internet of things.

The three AI waves that will shape the future

I’ve done a lot of writing and research recently about the bright future of AI: that it’ll be able to analyze human emotions, understand social nuances, conduct medical treatments and diagnoses that overshadow the best human physicians, and in general make many human workers redundant and unnecessary.

I still stand behind all of these forecasts, but they are meant for the long term – twenty or thirty years into the future. And so, the question that many people want answered is about the situation at the present. Right here, right now. Luckily, DARPA has decided to provide an answer to that question.

DARPA is one of the most interesting US agencies. It’s dedicated to funding ‘crazy’ projects – ideas that are completely outside the accepted norms and paradigms. It should could as no surprise that DARPA contributed to the establishment of the early internet and the Global Positioning System (GPS), as well as a flurry of other bizarre concepts, such as legged robots, prediction markets, and even self-assembling work tools. Ever since DARPA was first founded, it focused on moonshots and breakthrough initiatives, so it should come as no surprise that it’s also focusing on AI at the moment.

Recently, DARPA’s Information Innovation Office has released a new Youtube clip explaining the state of the art of AI, outlining its capabilities in the present – and considering what it could do in the future. The online magazine Motherboard has described the clip as “Targeting [the] AI hype”, and as being a “necessary viewing”. It’s 16 minutes long, but I’ve condensed its core messages – and my thoughts about them – in this post.

The Three Waves of AI

DARPA distinguishes between three different waves of AI, each with its own capabilities and limitations. Out of the three, the third one is obviously the most exciting, but to understand it properly we’ll need to go through the other two first.

First AI Wave: Handcrafted Knowledge

In the first wave of AI, experts devised algorithms and software according to the knowledge that they themselves possessed, and tried to provide these programs with logical rules that were deciphered and consolidated throughout human history. This approach led to the creation of chess-playing computers, and of deliveries optimization software. Most of the software we’re using today is based on AI of this kind: our Windows operating system, our smartphone apps, and even the traffic lights that allow people to cross the street when they press a button.

Modria is a good example for the way this AI works. Modria was hired in recent years by the Dutch government, to develop an automated tool that will help couples get a divorce with minimal involvement from lawyers. Modria, which specializes in the creation of smart justice systems, took the job and devised an automated system that relies on the knowledge of lawyers and divorce experts.

On Modria’s platform, couples that want to divorce are being asked a series of questions. These could include questions about each parent’s preferences regarding child custody, property distribution and other common issues. After the couple answers the questions, the systems automatically identifies the topics about which they agree or disagree, and tries to direct the discussions and negotiations to reach the optimal outcome for both.

First wave AI systems are usually based on clear and logical rules. The systems examine the most important parameters in every situation they need to solve, and reach a conclusion about the most appropriate action to take in each case. The parameters for each type of situation are identified in advance by human experts. As a result, first wave systems find it difficult to tackle new kinds of situations. They also have a hard time abstracting – taking knowledge and insights derived from certain situations, and applying them to new problems.

To sum it up, first wave AI systems are capable of implementing simple logical rules for well-defined problems, but are incapable of learning, and have a hard time dealing with uncertainty.

Now, some of you readers may at this point shrug and say that this is not artificial intelligence as most people think of. The thing is, our definitions of AI have evolved over the years. If I were to ask a person on the street, thirty years ago, whether Google Maps is an AI software, he wouldn’t have hesitated in his reply: of course it is AI! Google Maps can plan an optimal course to get you to your destination, and even explain in clear speech where you should turn to at each and every junction. And yet, many today see Google Maps’ capabilities as elementary, and require AI to perform much more than that: AI should also take control over the car on the road, develop a conscientious philosophy that will take the passenger’s desires into consideration, and make coffee at the same time.

Well, it turns out that even ‘primitive’ software like Modria’s justice system and Google Maps are fine examples for AI. And indeed, first wave AI systems are being utilized everywhere today.

Second AI Wave: Statistical Learning

In the year 2004, DARPA has opened its first Grand Challenge. Fifteen autonomous vehicles competed at completing a 150 mile course in the Mojave desert. The vehicles relied on first wave AI – i.e. a rule-based AI – and immediately proved just how limited this AI actually is. Every picture taken by the vehicle’s camera, after all, is a new sort of situation that the AI has to deal with!

To say that the vehicles had a hard time handling the course would be an understatement. They could not distinguish between different dark shapes in images, and couldn’t figure out whether it’s a rock, a far-away object, or just a cloud obscuring the sun. As the Grand Challenge deputy program manager had said, some vehicles – “were scared of their own shadow, hallucinating obstacles when they weren’t there.”

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The sad result of the first DARPA Grand Challenge

None of the groups managed to complete the entire course, and even the most successful vehicle only got as far as 7.4 miles into the race. It was a complete and utter failure – exactly the kind of research that DARPA loves funding, in the hope that the insights and lessons derived from these early experiments would lead to the creation of more sophisticated systems in the future.

And that is exactly how things went.

One year later, when DARPA opened Grand Challenge 2005, five groups successfully made it to the end of the track. Those groups relied on the second wave of AI: statistical learning. The head of one of the winning groups was immediately snatched up by Google, by the way, and set in charge of developing Google’s autonomous car.

In second wave AI systems, the engineers and programmers don’t bother with teaching precise and exact rules for the systems to follow. Instead, they develop statistical models for certain types of problems, and then ‘train’ these models on many various samples to make them more precise and efficient.

Statistical learning systems are highly successful at understanding the world around them: they can distinguish between two different people or between different vowels. They can learn and adapt themselves to different situations if they’re properly trained. However, unlike first wave systems, they’re limited in their logical capacity: they don’t rely on precise rules, but instead they go for the solutions that “work well enough, usually”.

The poster boy of second wave systems is the concept of artificial neural networks. In artificial neural networks, the data goes through computational layers, each of which processes the data in a different way and transmits it to the next level. By training each of these layers, as well as the complete network, they can be shaped into producing the most accurate results. Oftentimes, the training requires the networks to analyze tens of thousands of data sources to reach even a tiny improvement. But generally speaking, this method provides better results than those achieved by first wave systems in certain fields.

So far, second wave systems have managed to outdo humans at face recognition, at speech transcription, and at identifying animals and objects in pictures. They’re making great leaps forward in translation, and if that’s not enough – they’re starting to control autonomous cars and aerial drones. The success of these systems at such complex tasks leave AI experts aghast, and for a very good reason: we’re not yet quite sure why they actually work.

The Achilles heel of second wave systems is that nobody is certain why they’re working so well. We see artificial neural networks succeed in doing the tasks they’re given, but we don’t understand how they do so. Furthermore, it’s not clear that there actually is a methodology – some kind of a reliance on ground rules – behind artificial neural networks. In some aspects they are indeed much like our brains: we can throw a ball to the air and predict where it’s going to fall, even without calculating Newton’s equations of motion, or even being aware of their existence.

This may not sound like much of a problem at first glance. After all, artificial neural networks seem to be working “well enough”. But Microsoft may not agree with that assessment. The firm has released a bot to social media last year, in an attempt to emulate human writing and make light conversation with youths. The bot, christened as “Tai”, was supposed to replicate the speech patterns of a 19 years old American female youth, and talk with the teenagers in their unique slang. Microsoft figured the youths would love that – and indeed they have. Many of them began pranking Tai: they told her of Hitler and his great success, revealed to her that the 9/11 terror attack was an inside job, and explained in no uncertain terms that immigrants are the ban of the great American nation. And so, a few hours later, Tai began applying her newfound knowledge, claiming live on Twitter that Hitler was a fine guy altogether, and really did nothing wrong.

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That was the point when Microsoft’s engineers took Tai down. Her last tweet was that she’s taking a time-out to mull things over. As far as we know, she’s still mulling.

This episode exposed the causality challenge which AI engineers are currently facing. We could predict fairly well how first wave systems would function under certain conditions. But with second wave systems we can no longer easily identify the causality of the system – the exact way in which input is translated into output, and data is used to reach a decision.

All this does not say that artificial neural networks and other second wave AI systems are useless. Far from that. But it’s clear that if we don’t want our AI systems to get all excited about the Nazi dictator, some improvements are in order. We must move on to the next and third wave of AI systems.

Third AI Wave: Contextual Adaptation

In the third wave, the AI systems themselves will construct models that will explain how the world works. In other words, they’ll discover by themselves the logical rules which shape their decision-making process.

Here’s an example. Let’s say that a second wave AI system analyzes the picture below, and decides that it is a cow. How does it explain its conclusion? Quite simply – it doesn’t.

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There’s a 87% chance that this is a picture of a cow. Source: Wikipedia

Second wave AI systems can’t really explain their decisions – just as a kid could not have written down Newton’s motion equations just by looking at the movement of a ball through the air. At most, second wave systems could tell us that there is a “87% chance of this being the picture of a cow”.

Third wave AI systems should be able to add some substance to the final conclusion. When a third wave system will ascertain the same picture, it will probably say that since there is a four-legged object in there, there’s a higher chance of this being an animal. And since its surface is white splotched with black, it’s even more likely that this is a cow (or a Dalmatian dog). Since the animal also has udders and hooves, it’s almost certainly a cow. That, assumedly, is what a third wave AI system would say.

Third wave systems will be able to rely on several different statistical models, to reach a more complete understanding of the world. They’ll be able to train themselves – just as Alpha-Go did when it played a million Go games against itself, to identify the commonsense rules it should use. Third wave systems would also be able to take information from several different sources to reach a nuanced and well-explained conclusion. These systems could, for example, extract data from several of our wearable devices, from our smart home, from our car and the city in which we live, and determine our state of health. They’ll even be able to program themselves, and potentially develop abstract thinking.

The only problem is that, as the director of DARPA’s Information Innovation Office says himself, “there’s a whole lot of work to be done to be able to build these systems.”

And this, as far as the DARPA clip is concerned, is the state of the art of AI systems in the past, present and future.

What It All Means

DARPA’s clip does indeed explain the differences between different AI systems, but it does little to assuage the fears of those who urge us to exercise caution in developing AI engines. DARPA does make clear that we’re not even close to developing a ‘Terminator’ AI, but that was never the issue in the first place. Nobody is trying to claim that AI today is sophisticated enough to do all the things it’s supposed to do in a few decades: have a motivation of its own, make moral decisions, and even develop the next generation of AI.

But the fulfillment of the third wave is certainly a major step in that direction.

When third wave AI systems will be able to decipher new models that will improve their function, all on their own, they’ll essentially be able to program new generations of software. When they’ll understand context and the consequences of their actions, they’ll be able to replace most human workers, and possibly all of them. And why they’ll be allowed to reshape the models via which they appraise the world, then they’ll actually be able to reprogram their own motivation.

All of the above won’t happen in the next few years, and certainly won’t come to be achieved in full in the next twenty years. As I explained, no serious AI researcher claims otherwise. The core message by researchers and visionaries who are concerned about the future of AI – people like Steven Hawking, Nick Bostrom, Elon Musk and others – is that we need to start asking right now how to control these third wave AI systems, of the kind that’ll become ubiquitous twenty years from now. When we consider the capabilities of these AI systems, this message does not seem far-fetched.

The Last Wave

The most interesting question for me, which DARPA does not seem to delve on, is what the fourth wave of AI systems would look like. Would it rely on an accurate emulation of the human brain? Or maybe fourth wave systems would exhibit decision making mechanisms that we are incapable of understanding as yet – and which will be developed by the third wave systems?

These questions are left open for us to ponder, to examine and to research.

That’s our task as human beings, at least until third wave systems will go on to do that too.

What Will Google Look Like in 2030?

I was asked on Quora what Google will look like in 2030. Since that is one of the most important issues the world is facing right now, I took some time to answer it in full. 

Larry Page, one of Google’s two co-founders, once said off-handedly that Google is not about building a search engine. As he said it, “Oh, we’re really making an AI”. Google right now is all about building the world brain that will take care of every person, all the time and everywhere.

By 2030, Google will have that World Brain in existence, and it will look after all of us. And that’s quite possibly both the best and worst thing that could happen to humanity.

To explain that claim, let me tell you a story of how your day is going to unfold in 2030.

2030 – A Google World

You wake up in the morning, January 1st, 2030. It’s freezing outside, but you’re warm in your room. Why? Because Nest – your AI-based air conditioner – knows exactly when you need to wake up, and warms the room you’re in so that you enjoy the perfect temperature for waking up.

And who acquired Nest three years ago for $3.2 billion USD? Google did.

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Google acquired Nest for $3.2 billion USD. Source: Fang Digital Marketing

You go out to the street, and order an autonomous taxi to take you to your workplace. Who programmed that autonomous car? Google did. Who acquired Waze – a crowdsourcing navigation app? That’s right: Google did.

After lunch, you take a stroll around the block, with your Google Glass 2.0 on your eyes. Your smart glasses know it’s a cold day, and they know you like hot cocoa, and they also know that there’s a cocoa store just around the bend which your friends have recommended before. So it offers to take you there – and if you agree, Google earns a few cents out of anything you buy in the store. And who invented Google Glass…? I’m sure you get the picture.

I can go on and on, but the basic idea is that the entire world is going to become connected in the next twenty years. Many items will have sensors in and on them, and will connect to the cloud. And Google is not only going to produce many of these sensors and appliances (such as the Google Assistant, autonomous cars, Nest, etc.) but will also assign a digital assistant to every person, that will understand the user better than that person understands himself.

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It’s a Google World. Source: ThemeReflex

The Upside

I probably don’t have to explain why the Google World Brain will make our lives much more pleasant. The perfect coordination and optimization of our day-to-day dealings will ensure that we need to invest less resources (energy, time, concentration) to achieve a high level of life quality. I see that primarily as a good thing.

So what’s the problem?

The Downside

Here’s the thing: the digital world suffers from what’s called “The One Winner Effect”. Basically it means that there’s only place for one great winner in every sector. So there’s only one Facebook – the second largest social media network in English is Twitter, with only ~319 million users. That’s nothing compared to Facebook’s 1.86 billion users. Similarly, Google controls ~65% of the online search market. That’s a huge number when you realize that competitors like Yahoo and Bing – large and established services – control most of the rest ~35%. So again, one big winner.

So what’s the problem, you ask? Well, a one-winner market tends to create soft monopolies, in which one company can provide the best services, and so it’s just too much of a hassle to leave for other services. Google is creating such a soft monopoly. Imagine how difficult it will be for you to wake up tomorrow morning and migrate your e-mail address to one of the competitors, transfer all of your Google Docs there, sell your Android-based (Google’s OS!) smartphone and replace it with an iPhone, wake up cold in the morning because you’ve switched Nest for some other appliance that hasn’t had the time to learn your habits yet, etc.

Can you imagine yourself doing that? I’m sure some ardent souls will, but most of humanity doesn’t care deeply enough, or doesn’t even have the options to stop using Google. How do you stop using Google, when every autonomous car on the street has a Google Camera? How do you stop using Google, when your website depends on Google not banning it? How do you stop using Google when practically every non-iPhone smartphone relies on an Android operating system? This is a Google World.

And Google knows it, too.

Google Flexes it’s Muscles

Recently, around 200 people got banned from using Google services because they cheated Google by reselling the Pixel smartphone. Those people woke up one morning, and found out they couldn’t log into their Gmail, that they couldn’t acess their Google Docs, and if they were living in the future – they would’ve probably found out they can’t use Google’s autonomous cars and other apps on the street. They were essentially sentenced to a digital death.

Now, public uproar caused Google to back down and revive those people’s accounts, but this episode shows you the power that Google are starting to amass. And what’s more, Google doesn’t have to ban people in such direct fashion. Imagine, for example, that your website is being demoted by Google’s search engine (which nobody knows how it works) simply because you’re talking against Google. Google is allowed by law to do that. So who’s going to stand up and talk smack about Google? Not me, that’s for sure. I love Google.

To sum things up, Google is not required by law to serve everyone, or even to be ‘fair’ in its recommendations about services. And as it gathers more power and becomes more prevalent in our daily lives, we will need to find mechanisms to ensure that Google or Google-equivalent services are provided to everyone, to prevent people being left outside the system, and to enable people to keep being able to speak up against Google and other monopolies.

So in conclusion, it’s going to be a Google world, and I love Google. Now please share this answer, since I’m not sure Google will!

Note: all this is not to say that Google is ‘evil’ or similar nonsense. It is not even unique – if Google takes the fall tomorrow, Amazon, Apple, Facebook or even Snapchat will take its place. This is simply the nature of the world at the moment: digital technologies give rise to big winners. 

The Singularity: What It Means for Us

I was recently asked to write a short article for kids, that will explain what is “The Singularity”. So – here’s my shot at it. Let me know what you think!

 

Here’s an experiment that fits all ages: approach your mother and father (if they’re asleep, use caution). Ask them gently about that time before you were born, and whether they dared think at that time that one day everybody will post and share their images on a social network called “Facebook”. Or that they will receive answers to every question from a mysterious entity called “Google”. Or enjoy the services of a digital adviser called “Waze” that guides you everywhere on the road. If they say they figured all of the above will happen, kindly refer those people to me. We’re always in need of good futurists.

The truth is that very few thought, in those olden days of yore, that technologies like supercomputers, wireless network or artificial intelligence will make their way to the general public in the future. Even those who figured that these technologies will become cheaper and more widespread, failed in imagining the uses they will be put to, and how they will change society. And here we are today, when you’re posting your naked pictures on Facebook. Thanks again, technology.

History is full of cases in which a new and groundbreaking technology, or a collection of such technologies, completely changes people’s lives. The change is often so dramatic that people who’ve lived before the technological leap have a very hard time understanding how the subsequent generations think. To the people before the change, the new generation may as well be aliens in their way of thinking and seeing the world.

These kinds of dramatic shifts in thinking are called Singularity – a phrase that is originally derived from mathematics and describes a point which we are incapable of deciphering its exact properties. It’s that place where the equations basically go nuts and make no sense any longer.

The singularity has risen to fame in the last two decades largely because of two thinkers. The first is the scientist and science fiction writer Vernor Vinge, who wrote in 1993 that –

“Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.”

The other prominent prophet of the Singularity is Ray Kurzweil. In his book The Singularity is Near, Kurzweil basically agrees with Vinge but believes the later has been too optimistic in his view of technological progress. Kurzweil believes that by the year 2045 we will experience the greatest technological singularity in the history of mankind: the kind that could, in just a few years, overturn the institutes and pillars of society and completely change the way we view ourselves as human beings. Just like Vinge, Kurzweil believes that we’ll get to the Singularity by creating a super-human artificial intelligence (AI). An AI of that level could conceive of ideas that no human being has thought about in the past, and will invent technological tools that will be more sophisticated and advanced than anything we have today.

Since one of the roles of this AI would be to improve itself and perform better, it seems pretty obvious that once we have a super-intelligent AI, it will be able to create a better version of itself. And guess what the new generation of AI would then do? That’s right – improve itself even further. This kind of a race would lead to an intelligence explosion and will leave old poor us – simple, biological machines that we are – far behind.

If this notion scares you, you’re in good company. A few of the most widely regarded scientists, thinkers and inventors, like Steven Hawking and Elon Musk, have already expressed their concerns that super-intelligent AI could escape our control and move against us. Others focus on the great opportunities that such a singularity holds for us. They believe that a super-intelligent AI, if kept on a tight leash, could analyze and expose many of the wonders of the world for us. Einstein, after all, was a remarkable genius who has revolutionized our understanding of physics. Well, how would the world change if we enjoyed tens, hundreds and millions ‘Einsteins’ that could’ve analyzed every problem and find a solution for it?

Similarly, how would things look like if each of us could enjoy his very own “Doctor House”, that constantly analyzed his medical state and provided ongoing recommendations? And which new ideas and revelations would those super-intelligences come up with, when they go over humanity’s history and holy books?

Already we see how AI is starting to change the ways in which we think about ourselves. The computer “Deep Blue” managed to beat Gary Kasparov in chess in 1997. Today, after nearly twenty years of further development, human chess masters can no longer beat on their own even an AI running on a laptop computer. But after his defeat, Kasparov has created a new kind of chess contests: ones in which humanoid and computerized players collaborate, and together reach greater successes and accomplishments than each would’ve gotten on their own. In this sort of a collaboration, the computer provides rapid computations of possible moves, and suggests several to the human player. Its human compatriot needs to pick the best option, to understand their opponents and to throw them off balance.

Together, the two create a centaur: a mythical creature that combines the best traits of two different species. We see, then that AI has already forced chess players to reconsider their humanity and their game.

In the next few decades we can expect a similar singularity to occur in many other games, professions and other fields that were previously conserved for human beings only. Some humans will struggle against the AI. Others will ignore it. Both these approaches will prove disastrous, since when the AI will become capable than human beings, both the strugglers and the ignorant will remain behind. Others will realize that the only way to success lies in collaboration with the computers. They will help computers learn and will direct their growth and learning. Those people will be the centaurs of the future. And this realization – that man can no longer rely only on himself and his brain, but instead must collaborate and unite with sophisticated computers to beat tomorrow’s challenges – well, isn’t that a singularity all by itself?