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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The Little Military Drone that Could

We hear all around us about the major breakthroughs that await just around the bend: of miraculous cures for cancer, of amazing feats of genetic engineering, of robots that will soon take over the job market. And yet, underneath all the hubbub, there lurk the little stories – the occasional bizarre occurrences that indicate the kind of world we’re going into. One of those recent tales happened at the beginning of this year, and it can provide a few hints about the future. I call it – The Tale of the Little Drone that Could.

Our story begins towards the end of January 2017, when said little drone was launched at Southern Arizona as part of a simple exercise. The drone was part of the Shadow RQ-7Bv2 series, but we’ll just call it Shady from now on. Drones like Shady are usually being used for surveillance by the US army, and should not stray more than 77 miles (120 km) away from their ground-based control station. But Shady had other plans in the mind it didn’t have: as soon as it was launched, all communications were lost between the drone and the control station.

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Shady the drone. Source: Department of Defense

Other, more primitive drones, would probably have crashed at around this stage, but Shady was a special drone indeed. You see, Shadow drones enjoy a high level of autonomy. In simpler words, they can stay in the air and keep on performing their mission even if they lose their connection with the operator. The only issue was that Shady didn’t know what its mission was. And as the confused operators on the ground realized at that moment – nobody really had any idea what it was about to do.

Autonomous aerial vehicles are usually programmed to perform certain tasks when they lose communication with their operators. Emergency systems are immediately activated as soon as the drone realizes that it’s all alone, up there in the sky. Some of them circle above a certain point until radio connection is reestablished. Others attempt to land straight away on the ground, or try to return to the point from which they were launched. This, at least, is what the emergency systems should be doing. Except that in Shady’s case, a malfunction happened, and they didn’t.

Or maybe they did.

Some believe that Shady’s memory accidentally contained the coordinates of its former home in a military base in Washington state, and valiantly attempted to come back home. Or maybe it didn’t. These are, obviously, just speculations. It’s entirely possible that the emergency systems simply failed to jump into action, and Shady just kept sailing up in the sky, flying towards the unknown.

Be that as it may, our brave (at least in the sense that it felt no fear) little drone left its frustrated operators behind and headed north. It flew up on the strong winds of that day, and sailed over forests and Native American reservations. Throughout its flight, the authorities kept track over the drone by radar, but after five hours it reached the Rocky Mountains. It should not have been able to pass them, and since the military lost track of its radar signature at that point, everyone just assumed Shady crashed down.

But it didn’t.

Instead, Shady rose higher up in the air, to a height of 12,000 feet (4,000 meters), and glided up and above the Rocky Mountains, in environmental conditions it was not designed for and at distances it was never meant to be employed in. Nonetheless, it kept on buzzing north, undeterred, in a 632 miles journey, until it crashed near Denver. We don’t know the reason for the crash yet, but it’s likely that Shady simply ran out of fuel at about that point.

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The Rocky Mountains. Shady crossed them too.

And that is the tale of Shady, the little drone that never thought it could – mainly since it doesn’t have any thinking capabilities at all – but went the distance anyway.

 

What Does It All Mean?

Shady is just one autonomous robot out of many. Autonomous robots, even limited ones, can perform certain tasks with minimal involvement by a human operator. Shady’s tale is simply a result of a bug in the robot’s operation system. There’s nothing strange in that by itself, since we discover bugs in practically every program we use: the Word program I’m using to write this post occasionally (and rarely, fortunately) gets stuck, or even starts deleting letters and words by itself, for example. These bugs are annoying, but we realize that they’re practically inevitable in programs that are as complex as the ones we use today.

Well, Shady had a bug as well. The only difference between Word and Shady is that the second is a military drone worth $1.5 million USD, and the bug caused it to cross three states and the Rocky Mountains with no human supervision. It can be safely said that we’re all lucky that Shady is normally only used for surveillance, and is thus unarmed. But Shady’s less innocent cousin, the Predator drone, is also being used to attack military targets on the ground, and is thus equipped with two Hellfire anti-tank missiles and with six Griffin Air-to-surface missiles.

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A Predator drone firing away. 

I rather suspect that we would be less amused by this episode, if one of the armed Predators were to take Shady’s place and sail across America with nobody knowing where it’s going to, or what it’s planning to do once it gets there.

 

Robots and Urges

I’m sure that the emotionally laden story in the beginning of this post has made some of you laugh, and for a very good reason. Robots have no will of their own. They have no thoughts or self-consciousness. The sophisticated autonomous robots of the present, though, exhibit “urges”. The programmers assimilate into the robots certain urges, which are activated in pre-defined ways.

In many ways, autonomous robots resemble insects. Both are conditioned – by programming or by the structure of their simple neural systems – to act in certain ways, in certain situations. From that viewpoint, insects and autonomous robots both have urges. And while insects are quite complex organisms, they have bugs as well – which is the reason that mosquitos keep flying into the light of electric traps in the night. Their simple urges are incapable of dealing with the new demands placed by modern environment. And if insects can experience bugs in unexpected environments, how much more so for autonomous robots?

Shady’s tale shows what happens when a robot obeys the wrong kind of urges. Such bugs are inevitable in any complex system, but their impact could be disastrous when they occur in autonomous robots – especially of the armed variety that can be found in the battlefield.

 

Scared? Take Action!

If this revelation scares you as well, you may want to sign the open letter that the Future of Life Institute released around a year and a half ago, against the use of autonomous weapons in war. You won’t be alone out there: more than a thousand AI researchers have already signed that letter.

Will governments be deterred from employing autonomous robots in war? I highly doubt that. We failed to stop even the potentially world-shattering nuclear proliferation, so putting a halt to robotic proliferation doesn’t seem likely. But at least when the next Shady or Freddy the Predator get lost next time, you’ll be able to shake your head in disappointment and mention that you just knew that would happen, that you warned everyone in advance, and nobody listened to you.

And when that happens, you’ll finally know what being a futurist feels like.

 

 

 

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. 

Want to have Better Memory? Marry More People!

“So let me get this straight,” I said to one of the mothers in my son’s preschool. “You want to have a parent meeting, where we’ll demand that all the kids in the preschool will only receive vegan organic food cooked in the school perimeter?”

She nodded in affirmation.

“Well, this sounds like a meeting I just can’t miss.” I decided. “Give me a second to check my cellphone number. I just don’t remember it anymore.”

Her mouth twisted as I took out my smartphone and opened my contact book. “You really must rid yourself of this device.” She sniffed. “It’s ruining everyone’s memories.”

“Oh, certainly.” I smiled back at her. “First, just get a divorce from your husband. Then I’ll divorce my smartphone.”

“Excuse me?” Her eyes widened.

“It’s pretty simple.” I explained. “The smartphone is a piece of technology. It’s a tool that serves us and aids our memory. You could easily say that marriage is a similar technology – a social tool that evolved to augment and enhance our cognitive functions. This is what psychologist Daniel Wagner and his colleagues discovered in the 80s, when they noticed that married couples tend to share the burden of memories between each other. The husband, for example, remembered when they should take the cat to the vet, while the wife remembered her mother in law’s date of birth. You remember the date of your mother in law’s birthday, don’t you?”

“No, and I have no intention to.” She chillingly said. “Now, I would ask you to – “

“Maybe you should have better communication with your husband.” I tried to offer advice. “Wagner found out that memory sharing between couples happens naturally when the live and communicate with each other. Instead of opening an encyclopedia to find the answers to certain questions, the husband can just ask his wife. Wagner called this phenomenon transactive memory, since both husband and wife share memories because they are so accessible to each other. Together, they are smarter than each of them. And who knows? This may be one reason for the durability of the marriage institution in human culture – it has served us throughout history and enabled couples to make better and more efficient choices. For example, you and your husband probably discussed with each other about the best ways to take a mortgage on your house, didn’t you?”

“We didn’t need any mortgage.” She let me know in no uncertain terms. “And I must say that I’m shocked by your – “

“ – by my knowledge?” I completed the sentence for her. “I am too. All this information, and much more, appears in Clive Thompson’s book, Smarter than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better, which I’m currently reading. Highly recommended, by the way. Do you want me to loan it to you when I finish?”

“I would not.” She shot back. “What I want is for you to – “

“ – to give you more advice. I would love to!” I smiled. “Well, for starters, if you want an even better memory then you should probably add a few more partners to marry. Research has shown that transactive memory works extremely well in large groups. For example, when people learned complicated tasks like putting together a radio, and were later tested to see what they’ve learned, the results were clear: if you learned in a group and were tested as part of a group, then you had better success than those who learned alone. Students can also use transactive memory: they divide memory tasks between the members of the learning group, and as a result they can analyze the subject in a deeper and more meaningful manner. So maybe you should find a few more husbands. Or wives. Whatever you like. We don’t judge others, here in America.”

“Or maybe – “ And here I paused for a second, as her face rapidly changed colors. “Maybe I can keep my smartphone with me. Which would you prefer?”

She opened her mouth, thought better of it, turned around and got out of the door.

“You forgot to take my number!” I called after her. When she failed to reply, I crouched down to my kid.

“I’ve got a lot to tell her about organic food, too.” I told him. “Please ask her son for their phone number, and tell it to me tomorrow, OK?”

He promised to do so, and I stroked his hair affectionately. Transactive memory really is a wonderful thing to have.

 

Garbage, Trash, and the Future of Jobs

“Hey, wake up! You’ve got to see something amazing!” I gently wake up my four years old son.

He opens his eyes and mouth in a yawn. “Is it Transformers?” He asks hopefully.

“Even better!” I promise him. “Come outside to the porch with me and you’ll see for yourself!”

He dashes outside with me. Out in the street, Providence’s garbage truck is taking care of the trash bins in a completely robotic fashion. Here’s the evidence I shot it so you can see for yourself. –

 

The kid glares at me. “That’s not a Transformer.” He says.

“It’s a vehicle with a robotic arm that grabs the trash bins, lifts them up in the air and empties them into the truck.” I argue. “And then it even returns the bins to their proper place. And you really should take note of this, kiddo, because every detail in this scene provides hints about the way you’ll work in the future, and how the job market will look like.”

“What’s a job?” He asks.

I choose to ignore that. “Here are the most important points. First, routine tasks become automated. Routine tasks are those that need to be repeated without too much of a variation in between, and can therefore be easily handled by machines. In fact, that’s what the industrial revolution was all about – machines doing human menial labor more efficiently than human workers on a massive scale. But in last few decades machines have shown themselves capable of taking more and more routine tasks on themselves. And very soon we’ll see tasks that have been considered non-routine in the past, like controlling a car, being relegated to robots. So if you want to have a job in the future, try to find something that isn’t routine – a job that requires mental agility and finding solutions to new challenges every day.”

He’s decidedly rubbing his eyes, but I’m on the horse now.

“Second, we’ll still need workers, but not as many. Science fiction authors love writing about a future in which nobody will ever need to work, and robots will serve us all. Maybe this future will come to pass, but on the way there we’ll still need human workers to bridge the gap between ancient and novel systems. In the garbage car, for example, the robotic arm replaces two or three workers, but we still need the driver to pilot the vehicle – which is ancient technology – and to deal with unexpected scenarios. Even when the vehicle will be completely autonomous and won’t need a driver, a few workers will still be needed to be on alert: they’ll be called to places where the car has malfunctioned, or where the AI has identified a situation it’s incapable or unauthorized to deal with. So there will still be human workers, just not as many as we have today.”

He opens his mouth for a yawn again, but I cut him short. “Never show them you’re tired! Which brings me to the third point: in the future, we’ll need fewer workers – but of high caliber. Each worker will carry a large burden on his or her shoulders. Take this driver, for example: he needs to stop in the exact spot in front of every bin, operate the robotic arm and make sure nothing gets messy. In the past, the drivers didn’t need to have all that responsibility because the garbage workers who rode in the best of the truck did most of the work. The modern driver also had to learn to operate the new vehicle with the robotic arm, so it’s clear that he is learning and adapting to new technologies. These are skills that you’ll need to learn and acquire for yourself. And when will you learn them?!”

“In the future.” He recites by rote in a toneless voice. “Can I go back to sleep now?”

“Never.” I promise him. “You have to get upgraded – or be left behind. Take a look at those two bins on the pavement. The robotic arm can only pick up one of them – and it’s the one that comes in the right size. The other bin is being left unattended, and has to wait until the primitive human can come and take care of it. In other words, only the upgraded bin receives the efficient and rapid treatment by the garbage truck. So unless you want to stay like that other trash bin way behind, you have to prepare for the future and move along with it – or everyone else will leap ahead of you.”

He nods with drooping lids, and yawns again. I allow him to complete this yawn, at least.

“OK daddy.” He says. “Now can I go back to bed?”

I stare at him for a few more moments, while my mind returns from the future to the present.

“Yes,” I smile sadly at him. “Go back to bed. The future will wait patiently for you to grow up.”

My gaze follows him as he goes back to him room, and the smile melts from my lips. He’s still just four years old, and will learn all the skills that he needs to handle the future world as he grows up.

For him, the future will wait patiently.

For others – like those unneeded garbage workers – it’s already here.