Can Bots Replace Human Teachers?

“You want to order another pizza?” I suggested.

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’s Jill.” He said. “Jill Watson. It’s based on the same Watson AI engine that IBM developed a few years ago. That Watson can already have debates about current issues, conduct scientific literature reviews, and even provide legal consultation. And now it can even assist students just like a human teaching assistant, and they don’t even note the difference!”

“How can that be?” I tried to understand.

“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…”

“There are already companies that provide psychological services on the internet, using text messages.” He said. “Turns out it’s really going well for the patients. You want to bet bots can do this too in a few years? So get ready to wave bye-bye at many of the human psychologists out there.”

“Or maybe you could become an author and write novels…” I tried to continue.

“An AI managed to write a novel this year, and it passed the first round in a Japanese literary competition.” He stated.

“Or write political speeches…”

“Computers do that too.”

“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.”

I nodded.

“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.

 

Do You Want to Keep Your Job? Then You Have to be Nice

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.

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“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.

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“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.”

 

When Reality Changes More Quickly than Science Fiction

Brandon Sanderson is one of my favorite fantasy and science fiction authors. He is producing new books in an incredible pace, and his writing quality does not seem to suffer for it. The first book in his recent sci-fi trilogy, Steelheart from The Reckoners series, was published in September 2013. Calamity, the third and last book in the same series was published in February 2016. So just three years passed between the first and the last book in the series.

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The Reckoners trilogy. Source: Brittany Zelkovich

The books themselves describe a post-apocalyptic future, around ten years away from us. In the first book, the hero lives in the most technologically advanced cities in the world, with electricity, smartphones, and sophisticated technology at his disposal. Sanderson describes sophisticated weapons used by the police forces in the city, including laser weapons and even mechanized war suits. By the third book, our hero reaches another technologically-advanced outpost of humanity, and suddenly is surrounded by weaponized aerial drones.

You may say that the first city chose not to use aerial drones, but that explanation is a bit sketchy, as anyone who has read the books can testify. Instead, it seems to me that in the three years that passed since the original book was published, aerial drones finally made a large enough impact on the general mindset, that Sanderson could no longer ignore them in his vision of a future. He realized that his readers would look askance at any vision of the future that does not include mention of aerial drones of some kind. In effect, the drones have become part of the way we think about the future. We find it difficult to imagine a future without them.

Usually, our visions of the future change relatively slowly and gradually. In the case of the drones, it seems that within three years they’ve moved from an obscure technological item to a common myth the public shares about the future.

Science fiction, then, can show us what people in the present expect the future to look like. And therein lies its downfall.

 

Where Science Fiction Fails

Science fiction can be used to help us explore alternative futures, and it does so admirably well. However, best-selling books must reach a wide audience, and to resonate with many on several different levels. In order to do that, the most popular science fiction authors cannot stray too far from our current notions. They cannot let go of our natural intuitions and core feelings: love, hate, the appreciation we have for individuality, and many others. They can explore themes in which the anti-hero, or The Enemy, defy these commonalities that we share in the present. However, if the author wants to write a really popular book, he or she will take care not to forego completely the reality we know.

Of course, many science fiction book are meant for ‘in-house’ audience: for the hard-core sci-fi audience who is eager to think beyond the box of the present. Alastair Reynolds in his Revelation Space series, for example, succeeds in writing sci-fi literature for this audience exactly. He’s writing stories that in many aspects transcend notions of individuality, love and humanity. And he’s paying the price for this transgression as his books (to the best of my knowledge) have yet to appear on the New York Times Best Seller list. Why? As one disgruntled reviewer writes about Reynolds’ book Chasm City

“I prefer reading a story where I root for the protagonist. After about a third of the way in, I was pretty disturbed by the behavior of pretty much everyone.”

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Highly popular sci-fi literature is thus forced to never let go completely of present paradigms, which sadly limits its use as a tool to developing and analyzing far-away futures. On the other hand, it’s conceivable that an annual analysis of the most popular sci-fi books could provide us with an understanding of the public state-of-mind regarding the future.

Of course, there are much easier ways to determine how much hype certain technologies receive in the public sphere. It’s likely that by running data mining algorithms on the content of technological blogs and websites, we would reach better conclusions. Such algorithms can also be run practically every hours of every day. So yeah, that’s probably a more efficient route to figuring out how the public views the future of technology.

But if you’re looking for an excuse to read science fiction novels for a purely academic reason, just remember you found it in this blog post.

 

 

Images of Israeli War Machines from 2048

Do you want to know what war would look like in 2048? The Israeli artist Pavel Postovit has drawn a series of remarkable images depicting soldiers, robots and mechs – all in the service of the Israeli army in 2048. He even drew aerial ships resembling the infamous Triskelion from The Avengers (which had an unfortunate tendency to crash every second week or so).

Pavel is not the first artist to make an attempt to envision the future of war. Jakub Rozalski before him tried to reimagine World War II with robots, and Simon Stalenhag has many drawings that demonstrate what warfare could look like in the future. Their drawings, obviously, are a way to forecast possible futures and bring them to our attention.

Pavel’s drawings may not based on rigorous foresight research, but they don’t have to be. They are mainly focused on showing us one way the future may be unfurled. Pavel himself does not pretend to be a futures researcher, and told me that –

“I was influenced by all kind of different things – Elysium, District 9 [both are sci-fi movies from the last few years], and from my military service. I was in field intelligence, on the border with Syria, and was constantly exposed to all kinds of weapons, both ours and the Syrians.”

Here are a couple of drawings to make you understand Pavel’s vision of the future, divided according to categories I added. Be aware that the last picture is the most haunting of all.

 

Mechs in the Battlefield

Mechs are a form of ground vehicles with legs – much like Boston Dymanic’s Alpha Dog, which they are presumbaly based on. The most innovative of those mechs is the DreamCatcher – a unit with arms and hands that is used to collect “biological intelligence in hostile territory”. In one particularly disturbing image we can see why it’s called “DreamCatcher”, as the mech beheads a deceased human fighter and takes the head for inspection.

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Apparently, mechs in Pavel’s future are working almost autonomously – they can reach hostile areas on the battlefield and carry out complicated tasks on their own.

 

Soldiers and Aerial Drones

Soldiers in the field will be companied by aerial drones. Some of the drones will be larger than others – the Tinkerbell, for example, can serve both for recon and personal CAS (Close Air Support) for the individual soldier.

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Other aerial drones will be much smaller, and will be deployed as a swarm. The Blackmoth, for example, is a swarm of stealthy micro-UAVs used to gather tactical intelligence on the battlefield.

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Technology vs. Simplicity

Throughout Pavel’s visions of the future we can see a repeated pattern: the technological prowess of the west is going to collide with the simple lifestyle of natives. Since the images depict the Israeli army, it’s obvious why the machines are essentially fighting or constraining the Palestinians. You can see in the images below what life might look like in 2048 for Arab civillians and combatants.

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Another interesting picture shows Arab combatants dealing with a heavily armed combat mech by trying to make it lose its balance. At the same time, one of the combatants is sitting to the side with a laptop – presumbaly trying to hack into the robot.

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The Last Image

If the images above have made you feel somewhat shaken, don’t worry – it’s perfectly normal. You’re seeing here a new kind of warfare, in which robots take extremely active parts against human beings. That’s war for you: brutal and horrible, and there’s nothing much to do against that. If robots can actually minimize the amount of suffering on the battlefield by replacing soldiers, and by carrying out tasks with minimal casualties for both sides – it might actually be better than the human-based model of war.

Perhaps that is why I find the last picture the most horrendous one. You can see in it a combatant, presumably an Arab, with a bloody machette next to him and two prisoners that he’s holding in a cage. The combatant is reading a James Bond book. The symbolism is clear: this is the new kind of terrorist / combatant. He is vicious, ruthless, and well-educated in Western culture – at least well enough to develop his own ideas for using technology to carry out his ideology. In other words, this is an ISIS combatant, who begin to employ some of the technologies of the West like aerial drones, without adhering to moral theories that restrict their use by nations.

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Conclusion

The future of warfare in Pavel’s vision is beginning to leave the paradigm of human-on-human action, and is rapidly moving into robotic warfare. It is very difficult to think of a military future that does not include robots in it, and obviously we should start thinking right now about the consequences, and how (and whether) we can imbue robots with sufficient autonomous capabilities to carry out missions on their own, while still minimizing casualties on the enemy side.

You can check out the rest of Pavel’s (highly recommended) drawings in THIS LINK.

Review: Star Wars – the Force Awakens… and Falls to Sleep in the Middle of the Movie

I’ve finally had the chance to watch Star Wars – The Force Awakens, and I’m not going to sweeten the deal: It was incredibly mediocre. The director mainly played up on nostalgia value to replace the need for humor, real drama or character development. I’m not saying you shouldn’t watch it – just don’t set your expectations too high.

The really interesting thing in the movie for me, though, was the ongoing Failure of the Paradigm woven throughout the movie. As has often been mentioned in the past, Star Wars is in fact a medieval tale of knights in a shiny armor, a princess in distress (an actual princess! in space!), an evil dark wizard and some father-son unresolved issues. So yeah, we have a civilization that is technologically advanced enough to travel between planets at warp speed without much need for fuel, but we see no similar developments in any other fields: no nano-robots, no human augmentation, no biological warfare, no computer-brain interface, and absolutely no artificial intelligence. And please don’t insult my intelligence by claiming that R2D2 has one.

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Star Wars: a medieval space tale of knights and damsels in distress. Image originally from GeekTyrant

The question we should be asking is why. Why would any script writer ignore so many of these potential technological developments – some of which are bound to pop up in the next few decades – and focus instead on plots around which countless other stories have been told and retold throughout thousands of years?

The answer is the Failure of Paradigm: we are stuck in the current paradigm of humanity, love, heroes and free will expressed by biological entities. It takes a superb director and script writer – the Wachowskis’ The Matrix comes to mind – to create an excellent movie that makes you rethink those paradigms. But if you stick with the current paradigms, all you need is an average script, an average director and a lot of explosions to create a blockbuster.

Star Wars is a great example of how NOT to make a science fiction movie. It does not explore the boundaries of what’s possible and impossible in any significant way. It does not make us consider the impact of new technologies, or the changing structure of humanity. It sticks to the old lines and old terms: evil vs. good, empire vs. rebels, father vs. son, and a dashing hero with a bumbling damsel in distress (even though the damsel in the new movie is male). It is not science fiction. Instead, it is a fantasy movie.

And that’s great for some people. Heck, maybe even most people. That’s why it’s the ruling paradigm at the moment – it makes people feel happy and content. But I can’t help thinking and regretting the opportunity lost here. A movie with such a huge audience could make people think. The director could have involved a sophisticated AI in the plot, to make people consider the future of working with artificial virtual assistants. Instead we got a clownish robot. And destroying planets with cannons, requiring immense energy output? What evil empire in its right mind would use such an inefficient method? Why not, instead, just reprogram a single bacteria to create ‘grey goo’ – a self-replicating nano-robot that can devour all humans in its path in order to make more replicas of itself?

The answer is obvious: developments like these would make this fictional world too different from anything we’re willing to accept. In a world of sophisticated risk-calculating AI, there’s not much place for heroics. In a world of nano-technology, there’s no place for wasteful explosions. And in a world with brain-machine interfaces, it is entirely possible that there’s no place for love, biological or otherwise. All of these paradigms that are inherent to us would be gone, and that’s a risk most directors and script writers just aren’t willing to take.

So go – watch the new Star Wars movie, for old time sakes. But after you do that, don’t skimp on some other science fiction movies from the last couple of years that force us to rethink our paradigms. I recommend Chappie and Ex Machina from the last year in particular. These movies may not have the same number of eager followers, and in some cases they are quite disturbing (Chappie only received a rating of 31% in Rotten Tomatoes) – but they will make you think between the explosions. And in the end, isn’t that what we should expect from our science fiction?

 

When the Marine Corps is Using Science Fiction to Prepare for the Future

When most of us think of the Marine Corps, we usually imagine sturdy soldiers charging headlong into battle, or carefully sniping at an enemy combatant from the tops of buildings. We probably don’t imagine them reading – or writing – science fiction. And yet, that’s exactly what 15 marines are about to do in two weeks from now.

The Marine Corps Warfighting Lab (I bet you didn’t know they have one) and The Atlantic Council are holding a Science Fiction Futures Workshop in early February. And guess what? They’re looking for “young, creative minds”. You probably have to be marines, but even if you aren’t – maybe you’ll have a chance if you submit your application as well.

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Why Science Fiction is Necessary for Our Survival in the Future

Two weeks ago it was “Back to the Future Day”. More specifically, Doc and Marty McFly reached the future at exactly October 21st, 2015 in the second movie in the series. Me being a futurist, I was invited to several television and radio talk shows to discuss the shape of things to come, which is pretty ridiculous, considering that the future is always about to come, and we should talk about it every day, and not just in a day arbitrarily chosen by the scriptwriters of a popular movie.

All the same, I’ll admit I had an uplifting feeling. On October 21st, everybody was talking about the future. That made me realize something about science fiction: we really need it. Not just for the technological ideas that it gives us (like cellular phones and Tricorders from Star Trek), but also for the expanded view of the future that it provides us with.

Sci-fi movies and book take root in our culture, and establish a longing and an expectation to a well-defined future. In that way, sci-fi creations provide us with a valuable social tool: a radically prolonged Cycle-time, which is the length of time an individual in society tends to look forward to and plan for in advance.

Cycle-times in the Past

As human beings, and as living organisms in general, mother evolution has shaped us into fulfilling one main goal: transferring our genes to our descendants. We are, in a paraphrase of Richard Dawkins’ quote, trucks that carry the load of our genes into the future, as far as possible from our current starting point. It is curious realize that in order to preserve our genes into the future, we must be almost totally aware of the present. A prehistorical person who was not always on the alert for encroaching wolves, lions and tigers, would not have survived very long. Millions of years of evolution have designed living organisms so that they focus almost entirely on the present.

And so, for the first few tens of thousands years of human existence, we ran away from the tigers and chased after the deer, with a very short cycle-time, probably lasting less than a day.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to know when exactly we managed to strike a bargain with Grandfather Time. Such a bargain provided the early humans great power, and all they needed to do in return was to measure and document the passing of hours and days. I believe that we’ve started measuring time quite early in human history, since time measurement brought power, and power ensured survivability and the passing of genes and time measurement methodologies to the next generation.

The first cycle-time was probably quite short, lasting less than a full day. Early humans could roughly calculate how long it will take the sun to set according to its position in the sky, and so they could know when to start or end a hunt before darkness fell. Their cycle-time was a single day. The woman who wanted to know her upcoming menstruation period – which could lead to drawing predators and making it more difficult for her to hunt – could do that by looking at the moon, and by making a mark on a stick every night. Her cycle-time was a full month.

The great leap forward occurred in agricultural civilizations, which were based on an understanding of the cyclical nature of time: a farmer must know the cyclical order of the seasons of the year, and realize their significance for his field and crops. Without looking ahead a full year into the future, agricultural civilizations could not reach their full height. And so, ten thousand years ago, the first agricultural civilizations set a cycle-time of a whole year.

And that is pretty much the way it remained ever since that time.

One of the most ancient cycle-times, and the most common one as well: the seasons of the year.
One of the most ancient cycle-times, and the most common one as well: the seasons of the year.

Religious Cycle-times

Religions initially had the potential to provide longer cycle-times. The clergies have often documented history and made an attempt to forecast the future – usually by creating or establishing complex mythologies. Judaism has prolonged the agricultural cycle-time, for example, by setting a seven year cycle of tending one’s field: six years of growing corps, and a seventh year (Shmita, in Hebrew) in which the fields are allowed to rest.

“For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest the crops, but during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused.” – Exodus, 23, 10-11.

Most of the religious promises for the future, however, were usually vague, useless or even harmful. In his book, The Clock of the Long Now, Stewart Brand repeats an old joke that caricaturizes with more than a shred of truth the difficulties of the Abrahamic religions (i.e. Judaism, Christianity and Islam) in dealing with the future and creating useful cycle-times in the minds of their followers. “Judaism,” writes Brand, “says [that] the Messiah is going to come, and that’s the end of history. Christianity says [that] the Messiah is going to come back, and that’s the end of history. Islam says [that] the Messiah came, and history is irrelevant.” [the quote has been slightly modified for brevity]

While this is obviously a joke, it reflects a deeper truth: that religions (and cultures) tend to focus on a single momentous future, and ignore anything else that comes along. Worse, the vision of the future they give us is largely unhelpful since its veracity cannot be verified, and nobody is willing to set an actual date for the coming of the Messiah. Thus, followers of the Abrahamic religions continue their journey into the future, with their eyes covered with opaque glasses that have only one tiny hole to let the light in – and that hole is in the shape of the Messiah.

Religious futile cycle-time: everybody is waiting for the Messiah, who will come sometime, at some place, somehow.
Religious futile cycle-time: everybody is waiting for the Messiah, who will come sometime, at some place, somehow.

Why We Need Longer Cycle-times

When civilizations fail to consider the future in long cycle-times, they head towards inevitable failure and catastrophe. Jared Diamond illustrates this point time and time again in his masterpiece Collapse, in which he reviews several extinct civilizations, and the various ways in which they failed to adapt to their environment or plan ahead.

Diamond describes how the Easter Island folks did not think in cycle-times of trees and earth and soil, but instead thought in human shorter cycle-times. They greedily cut down too many of the trees in the island, and over several decades they squandered the island’s natural resources. Similarly, the settlers in Greenland could not think in a cycle-time long enough to contain the grasslands and the changing climate, and were forced to evacuate the island or freeze to death, after their goats and cattle damaged Greenland’s delicate ecology.

The agricultural civilizations, as I wrote earlier, tend to think by nature in cycle-times no longer than several years, and find it difficult to adjust their thinking into longer cycle-times: ones that apply to trees, earth and evolution of animal (and human) evolution. As a result, agricultural civilizations damage all of the above, disrupt their environment, and eventually disintegrate and collapse when their surroundings can’t support them anymore.

If we wish to keep humanity in existence overtime, we must switch to thinking in longer cycle-times that span decades and centuries. This is not to say that we should plan too far ahead – it’s always dangerous to forecast into the long-term – but we should constantly attempt to consider the consequences of our doings in the far-away future. We should always think of our children and grandchildren as we make steps that could determine their fate several decades away from now.

But how can we implement such long-term cycle-times into human culture?

If you still remember where I began this article, you probably realize the answer by now. In order to create cycle-times that last decades and centuries, we need to visit the future again and again in our imagination. We need to compare our achievements in the present to our expectations and visions of the future. This is, in effect, the end-result of science fiction movies and books: the best and most popular of them create new cycle-times that become entwined in human culture, and make us examine ourselves in the present, in the light of the future.

Movie Time

Science fiction movies and stories have an impressive capability to influence social consciousness. Karel Capek’s theater play R.U.R. from 1920, for example, had not only added the word “Robot” to the English lexicon, but has also infected western society with the fear that robots will take over mankind – just as they did in Capek’s play. Another influential movie, The Terminator, was released in 1984 and has solidified and consolidated that fear.

Science fictions does not have to make us fear the future, though. In Japanese culture, the cartoon robot Astro-Boy has become a national symbol in 1952, and ever since that time the Japanese are much more open and accepting towards robots.

Astro Boy: the science fiction series that made Japanese view robots much more warmly than the West.
Astro Boy: the science fiction series that made Japanese view robots much more warmly than the West.

The most influential science fiction creations are those that include dates, which in effect are forecasts for certain futures. These forecasts provide us with cycle-times that we can use to anchor our thinking whenever we contemplate the future. When the year 1984 has come, journalists all over the world tried to analyze society and see whether George Orwell’s dark and dystopian dream had actually come true. When October 21st 2015 was reached barely two weeks ago, I was interviewed almost all day long about the technological and societal forecasts made in Back to the Future. And when the year 2029 will finally come – the year in which Skynet is supposed to be controlling humanity according to The Terminator – I confidently forecast that numerous robotics experts will find themselves invited to talk shows and other media events.

As a result of the above science fiction creations, and many others, humanity is beginning to enjoy new and ambitious cycle-times: we look forward in our mind’s eye towards well-designated future dates, and examine whether our apocalyptic or utopian visions for them have actually come true. And what a journey into the future that is! The most humble cycle-times in science fiction span several decades ahead. The more grandiose ones leap forward to the year 2364 (Star Trek), 2800 (Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos) or even to the end of the universe and back again (in Isaac Asimov’s short story The Last Question).

The longest cycle-times of science fiction – those dealing with thousands or even millions of years ahead – may not be particularly relevant for us. The shorter cycle-times of decades and centuries, however, receive immediate attention from society, and thus have an influence on the way we conduct ourselves in the present.

Conclusion

Humanity has great need of new cycle-times that will be far longer than any that were established in its history. While policy makers attempt to take into account forecasts that span decades ahead, the public is generally not exposed or influenced by such reports. Instead, the cycle-times of many citizens are calibrated according to popular science fiction creations.

Hopefully, those longer cycle-times would allow humanity to prepare in advance to existential longer-term challenges, such as ecological catastrophes or social collapse. At the very same time, longer cycle-times can also encourage and push forward innovation in certain areas, as entrepreneurs and innovators struggle to fulfill the prophecies that were made for certain technological developments in the future (just think of all the clunky hoverboards that were invented towards 2015 as proof).

In short, if you want to save the future, just write science fiction!

Gene-edited Micro-Pigs about to become Pets

Can you recognize where the following paragraph is from?

Hammond was flamboyant, a born showman, and… had an elephant that he carried around with him in a little cage. The elephant was nine inches high and a foot long, and perfectly formed, except his tusks were stunted. Hammond took the elephant with him to fund-raising meetings. Gennaro usually carried it into the room, the cage covered with a little blanket, like a tea cozy, and Hammond would give his usual speech about the prospects for developing what he called “consumer biologicals.” Then, at the dramatic moment, Hammond would whip away the blanket to reveal the elephant. And he would ask for money.

 

The story of Hammond and his miniature elephant (supposedly genetically engineered) appears in the opening pages of the book Jurassic Park. Ever since I read Jurassic Park in my teens, this is the paragraph that got stuck in my mind. After all, ravenous dinosaurs eating people is neat and everything, but having a tiny elephant living in your house, and showing it to your friends every time they drop by? Now that’s priceless – and definitely an idea I could relate to.

As it turns out, this dream is actually coming to fruition nowadays, with a Chinese prestigious institute announcing its intention to sell genetically engineered micro-pigs. Which, I guess, are a good substitute for a micro-elephant… at least for now.

The micro-pigs in question were engineered in a way that disabled their normal production of growth hormones, leading to the creation of a ‘dwarf’ pig. Their original purpose was to be used in medical studies of dwarfism and other metabolic disorders, since pigs are often used as models for human diseases. However, when they were revealed to the public at the Shenzhen International Biotech Leaders Summit in China one week ago, they stole the show.

“We had a bigger crowd than anyone,” said Lars Bolund, who took part in the pigengeering project, in an interview to Scientific American. “People were attached to them. Everyone wanted to hold them.”

Micro-pigs caused an uproar in the Biomedical Summit in China. Image originally from Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog
Micro-pigs caused an uproar in the Biomedical Summit in China. Image originally from Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog

The enthusiasm should not really have been surprising. There’s been a pig-pet craze for the past few decades, which scrupulous breeders have taken advantage of by selling “teacup pigs” – tiny piglets which were supposed to remain small through adulthood. As it turned out, many such piglets grew to weigh 100 – 150 pounds, forcing their owners to give the massive beasts up.

The micro-pigs should be relatively safe to purchase, and quite simply cannot reach a weigh of more than 15 kilograms, or more than the size of a medium-sized dog. That’s in their DNA – the genetic program that instructs their body on its final shape and size. The BGI Chinese institute is planning to sell them at $1,600 – and I won’t be surprised if the first batch will be snatched up within days by the rich and the famous who will be looking for new ways to demonstrate their… well, richness and fame.

But the really interesting question for me is: what will be the next genetically-engineered animal to make it to households as pet?

Dragon to Newt

The first (and possibly easiest to perform) kind of genetic engineering for household pets will be downsizing. As the BGI institute researchers have shown, you just need to disable the production of growth hormones in the animal to do that – a relatively easy task. Which animals will be downsized, then?

Endangered or threatened species will probably not be on the list, since the researchers need a mature female to give birth to the engineered baby-animal. Also, many large mammals have an extremely long pregnancies, which might make the venture unprofitable. So – I’m probably not going to enjoy my micro-elephant or micro-rhinoceros anytime soon.

If I had to bet on the animal of choice, my money would probably be on micro-crocodiles. The Nile crocodile is nowhere near endangered, and the female lays an average of fifty eggs, which hatch in three months. Baby crocodiles are already cute enough that some people will adopt them, with the obvious result of having to face a full-blown crocodile in the bathroom two years later. But what if they’re engineered to never grow any larger? I would probably chip in for a pet like that. A miniature horse or stag – if you just bring them down to the size of a house cat – wouldn’t hurt either.

Will micro-crocodiles be our next pets? Image of a baby crocodile taken from Pinterest - user Jessica Curzon
Will micro-crocodiles be our next pets?
Image of a baby crocodile taken from Pinterest – user Jessica Curzon

Glow in the Dark

“Glow in the dark animals” are already quite common in labs around the world. They’re being used for medical studies, but somehow have never found their way to the consumer market. The answer has a lot to do with the psychology of the consumer, but I would wager a guess that we just don’t like glow-in-the-dark cats or dogs. And why should we? The glow is mostly revealed only under UV light, and in any case – it would just make the animals frightening to behold.

The only case in which glowing animals became a success was with aquarium fish (GloFish) that were the recipients of a jellyfish gene causing them to slow in the dark. Those fish are quite beautiful, but they grow only in the extremely secure and limited environment of the fish tank. Not really interesting, to be honest.

GloFish as our "glow in the dark" pets. Image originally from the GloFish site
GloFish as our “glow in the dark” pets. Image originally from the GloFish site

Cats Just Want to have Fun

Ragdoll cats are known as the most gentle and non-aggressive of all cats. They were bred specifically to be that way, and are a hit among adults and children who love the way cats look – but not the scars they leave on the skin.

Since we are beginning to identify genes that influence behavior and aggression in animals, why not use genetic engineering to bring some really ferocious animals to our houses?

I know that I wrote earlier against the engineering of endangered animals, but just consider: wouldn’t you like a full-sized tiger that is – quite literally – gentler than a kitten? Or how about a fun-loving shark in the swimming pool?

While these are probably extreme examples (you still have to feed these animals with tons of raw meat!), I think we can agree that smaller animals, like a people-loving raccoon, or a truly affectionate snake that likes to cuddle, could be a real hit.

Can We Stop GE-Pets?

By now you’re probably asking yourself if we can stop the technology from coming to fruition and delivering GE-pets to our doorsteps. It is extremely unlikely that the process will stop in any way, because of several reasons –

  • Globalization: if GE-pets are banned in one country, they’ll be engineered in another country like China. When their safety is demonstrated over time, they’ll spread around;
  • Powerful and cheap GE techniques: novel genetic engineering techniques are becoming rapidly cheaper and more powerful, which means that many private companies will soon start dabbling with synthetic biology. Even the venerable Bill Gates recently mentioned that if he were a kid today – he would be hacking biology. Governments will find it increasingly more difficult to stop these new companies from delivering their products to the market.
  • Eventual spread: let’s say you own a micro-pig, and your friend raises her own micro-pig. You like her, she likes you, and your micro-pigs like each other. What do you think will happen next? You could enjoy a litter of micro-pigs within less than a year, which you will give to your neighbors, whether they like them or not. Of course, most GE-pets will also be engineered to be sterile (companies have to protect their business investment, after all), but others will be fertile, and you can be sure that they’ll breed and spread throughout the land.

Conclusion

We are now at the beginning of a fascinating and exciting age: the age of synthetic biology, when animals could be molded according to our wishes. Obviously, we gain an enormous power over nature that way – but is it any different from raising animals in farms and stables? I’m not so sure. I also don’t see much of a danger to bio-diversity in the short-term, since the animals we will engineer for our needs will be hard-pressed to survive in nature (good luck to that micro-crocodile, or cuddling snake when they have to survive outside the house).

I’ll be waiting for my micro-crocodile to arrive sometime in this decade or the next.

And what would you kids like to get for Christmas?

Batman Exists – and His Name Is Bill Gates

Today is Batman Day – the day in which we celebrate Batman’s triumph over evil, again. It seems Batman keeps on saving the world (or Gotham, at least) at least once a year, and yet the baddies just keep on streaming to his doorstep. While frustrating, this fact does not discourage the Bat-fans, who flock to the comics stores to celebrate one of the most renowned heroes of the day.

Sadly, they almost completely ignore the real heroes of our times: people like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Mark Zuckerberg who have pledged to give at least half of their fortunes to charity, along with more than 135 other billionaires who have signed a similar pledge.

Bill and his wife Melinda alone have pledged over $30 billion to various charities, and have founded the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation which continually gives out grants and monetary assistance to demolish poverty, hunger and disease worldwide. Warren Buffett has pledged a similar amount of $30 billion to the Foundation as well. According to an infographic from 2012, the Gates’ generosity has saved almost six million lives by brining vaccinations and improving healthcare internationally.

So why is it that we view Batman in such a high esteem, while pretty much ignoring Bill, Melinda, Buffett and other billionaires?

To understand the reasons we need to go back in time, and view history in the form of waves, as noted futurist Alvin Toffler have done in his book from the 1980s – The Third Wave.

The Third Wave: a masterpiece about the future, or rather the present of current times, since the book was published in 1980. Highly recommended!
The Third Wave: a masterpiece about the future, or rather the present of current times, since the book was published in 1980. Highly recommended!

A History of Waves

In his (highly recommended) classic, Toffler has described two waves that have swept over humanity and have created new civilizations. The First Wave was the one that replaced hunter-gatherer societies with agricultural ones. The Second Wave was the Industrial Revolution, which has led to standardization and centralization of manufacturing and governance. And the Third Wave, which we are experiencing right now, is leading to the creation of the post-industrial society, in which wealth is measured in information, and not necessarily in physical products (to understand that, consider that Google is making approximately $30 billion just by selling and rerouting information).

The interesting thing about those waves is that while people change their lifestyle, their consciousness and culture remains largely ‘stuck’ in the previous waves. In fact, we all still firmly adhere in our mentality to the era before the agricultural wave (the First Wave), when the heroes and top-guns were the chieftains and the hunters. And what distinguished them? They had big and bulging muscles, and were largely the macho types, competing constantly among themselves over who’s stronger.

In other words, they were largely the archetype of all comics, anime and manga superheroes.

A typical superhero - strong and assumedly fertile. Image originally taken from Progressiveboink
A typical superhero – strong and assumedly fertile.
Image originally taken from Progressiveboink

We see the affection for the big and macho types in many other places. Jared Diamond has described in his masterpiece Collapse, that Australians still view the cowboys and lone farmers with great affection and as the “ideal Australians”. Similarly, a soldier from the Marine Corps is enjoying a far greater prestige than a cyber-hacker, despite the fact that the latter is almost certainly more influential. The same applies to military unmanned aerial vehicles controllers, who are being ridiculed by the ‘real pilots’.

In other words, we are all still mentally fastened to an era that precedes even the First Wave – more than 10,000 years ago. The principles of that time, which are largely in contradiction to the way the world works today, include –

  • Might: Brawn over brains;
  • Materialism: Materials (food, money in your hand) are more important than information (money in your virtual bank account);
  • Wholeness: Individuals and groups are valued by the work they do themselves, while those who outsource labor are considered lazy or money mongers.
  • Cleanliness: Occupations that deal with ‘dirty’ jobs, like cleaning human excrement or handling the garbage bins on the streets, are considered much less prestigious than most other occupations – even though they may be high-earning professions, and certainly important for society wellbeing.

Leaving the Past behind Us

Can we leave our evolutionary history behind us, and move forward to a more progressive future? I believe we can. Our brains may be largely wired in the same way they were 10,000 years ago, but we have a large advantage over nature: our consciousness and ability to essentially rewire our own brain just by thinking and comprehending new ideas.

My friend Yaron Assa demonstrated how we can transcend our old ways of thinking, in a lesson he gave in my course about foresight and forecasting. He showed the audience two lines, and asked them which is longer (you can see the challenge below). Everybody sniggered, and told Yaron that both lines are just as long – and that it’s an old and well-known visual illusion. To which Yaron calmly explained that they have just now proved that human beings can recognize their biases – even ones based on the brain’s wiring and visualization systems – and overlook them, if only they know about them in advance.

The Muller-Lyer optical illusion. Which line is longer - A or B?  Originally from "Us and Them" article
The Muller-Lyer optical illusion. Which line is longer – A or B?
Originally from “Us and Them” article

I believe we can put the past behind us. Not completely, of course, but largely so. We’re already on that path right now. Many of our best comics superheroes turn out into geeks: Hank Pym (Antman) and Bruce Banner (the Hulk) are brilliant scientists, Tony Stark (Ironman) is a super-engineer, Batman is constantly re-engineering his equipment, and so on. So maybe we’re beginning to overcome the idea that brawn overcomes brains.

Are brains starting to become more valued than brawn? Originally from Comicvine
Are brains starting to become more valued than brawn?
Originally from Comicvine

In summary, we can leave some of the past behind us, but before we do that, we have to recognize just how much we cling to it. So while you’re celebrating this Batman Day out there with your capes and gloomy looks, don’t forget the real heroes of our times – the ones who are not macho, who don’t have bulging muscles, and yet like Batman they largely hide behind the scenery and do the dirty work that nobody likes to think about.