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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I answer, “who cares”?

 

But Seriously Now…

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

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

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

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

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

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

So again – who needs tanks?

 

And Still…

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

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

 


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

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What Will Google Look Like in 2030?

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

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

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

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

2030 – A Google World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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It’s a Google World. Source: ThemeReflex

The Upside

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

So what’s the problem?

The Downside

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

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

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

And Google knows it, too.

Google Flexes it’s Muscles

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

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

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

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

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

The Activated World: from Solar Power to Food

 

Solar panels are undergoing rapid evolution in the last ten years. I’ve written about this in previous posts in the blog (see for example the forecast that we’ll have flying cars by 2035, which is largely dependent on the sun providing us with an abundance of electricity). The graph below is pretty much saying it all: the cost for producing just one watt of solar energy has gone down to somewhere between 1 percent and 0.5 percent of what it used to be just forty years ago.

At the same time that prices go down, we see more installations of solar panels worldwide, roughly doubling every 2-3 years. Worldwide solar capacity in 2014 has been 53 times higher than in 2005, and global solar photovoltaic installations grew 34% in 2015 according to GTM Research.

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Source: GTM Research

It should come as no surprise that regulators are beginning to take note of the solar trend. Indeed, two small California cities – Lancastar and Sebastopol – passed laws in 2013 requiring new houses to include solar panels on their roofs. And now, finally, San Francisco joins the fray as the first large city in the world to require solar panels on every new building.

San Francisco has a lofty goal: meeting all of its energy demands by 2025, using renewable sources only. The new law seems to be one more step towards that achievement. But more than that, the law is part of a larger principle, which encompasses the Internet of Things as well: the Activation of Everything.

 

The Activation of Everything

To understand the concept of the Activation of Everything, we need to consider another promising legislation that will be introduced soon in San Francisco by Supervisor Scott Wiener. Supervisor Wiener is allowing solar roofs to be replaced with living roofs – roofs that are covered with soil and vegetation. According to a 2005 study, living roofs reduce cooling loads by 50-90 percent, and reduce stormwater waste and runoff to the sewage. They retain much of the rainwater, which later goes back to the atmosphere through evaporation. They enhance biodiversity, sequester carbon and even capture pollution. Of course, not every plant can be grown efficiently on such roofs – particularly not in dry California – but there’s little doubt that optimized living roofs can contribute to the city’s environment.

Supervisor Wiener explains the reasons behind the solar power legislation in the following words –

“This legislation will activate our roofs, which are an under-utilized urban resource, to make our City more sustainable and our air cleaner. In a dense, urban environment, we need to be smart and efficient about how we maximize the use of our space to achieve goals like promoting renewable energy and improving our environment.”

Pay attention to the “activate our roofs” part. Supervisor Wiener is absolutely right in that the roofs are an under-utilized urban resource. Whether you want to use those roofs to harvest solar power or to grow plants and improve the environment, the idea is clear. We need to activate – in any means possible – our resources, so that we maximize their use.

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A living roof in lower Manhattan. Source: Alyson Hurt, Flickr

That is what the Activation of Everything principle means: activate everything, whether by allowing surfaces and items to harvest power or resources, or to have sensing and communication capabilities. In a way, activation can also mean convergence: take two functions or services that were performed separately in the past, and allow them to be performed together. In that way, a roof is no longer just a means to provide shade and protection from the weather, but can also harvest energy and improve the environment.

The Internet of Things is a spectacular example for implementing the Activation of Everything principle. In the Internet of Things world, everything will be connected: every roof, every wall, every bridge and shirt and shoe. Every item will be activated to have added purposes. Our shirts will communicate our respiration rate to our physicians. Bricks in walls will report on their structural integrity to engineers. Bridges will let us know that they’re close to maximum capacity, and so on.

The Internet of Things largely relies on sophisticated electronic technologies, but the Activation of Everything principle is more general than that. The Activation of Everything can also mean creating solar or living roofs, or even creating walls that include limestone-secreting bacteria that can fix cracks as soon as they form.

Where else can we implement the Activation of Everything principle in the future?

 

The Activation of Cars

There have been many ideas to create roads that can harvest energy from cars’ movements. Unfortunately, the Laws of Thermodynamics reveal that such roads will in fact ‘steal’ that energy from passing cars, by making it more difficult for them to travel along the road. Not a good idea. The activation of roofs works well specifically because it has a good ROI (Return on Investment), with a relatively low energetic investment and large returns. Not so with energy-stealing roads.

But there’s another unutilized resource in cars – the roof. We can use the Activation principle to derive insights about the future of car roofs: hybrid cars will be covered with solar panels, which will be used to harvest energy when they’re sitting in the parking lot, and store it for the ride home.

Don’t get the math wrong: cars with solar roofs won’t be able to drive endlessly. In fact, if they rely only on solar power, they’ll barely even crawl. However, they will be able to power the electrical devices in the car, and trucks may even use solar energy on long journeys, to cool the wares they carry. If the cost of solar panel installation continues to go down, these uses could be viable within the decade.

 

The Activation of Farmlands

Farmlands are being activated today in many different ways: from sensors all over the field, and sometimes in every tree trunk, to farmers supplementing their livelihood by deploying solar panels and ‘farming electricity’. Some are combining both solar panels and crop and animal farming by spreading solar panels at a few meters height above the field, and growing plants that can make the most of the limited sunlight that gets to them.

 

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Anna Freund run the Open View Farm. Source: VPR

The Activation of the Air

Even the air around us can be activated. Aerial drones may be considered an initial attempt to activate the sky by filling them with flying sensors, but they are large, cumbersome and interfere with aerial traffic and with the view. However, we’ll be able to activate air in various other ways in the future, such as smart dust – extremely small sensors with limited wireless connectivity that will transmit data about their whereabouts and the conditions there.

 

The Activation of Food

Food is one of the only things that have barely been activated so far. Food today serves only two goals: to please by tasting great, and to nourish the body. According to the principle of Activation, however, food will soon serve several other purposes. Food items could be used to deliver therapeutics or sensors into the body, or possibly be produced with built-in biocompatible electronics and LEDs to make the food look better on the plate.

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Activated food: a banana with an edible food sensor, developed by researchers at Tufts University. Source: factcoexist.com

Conclusions

As human beings, we’ve always searched for ways to optimize efficiency and to make the best use of the limited resources we have. One of those limited resources is space, which is why we try to activate – add functions – to every surface and item today.

It’s fascinating to consider how the Activation of Everything will shape our world in the next few decades. We will have sensors everywhere, solar panels everywhere, batteries and electronics everywhere. It will be a world where nothing is as it seems at first glance anymore. An activated world – a living world indeed.

 

Don’t Tell Me Not To Make Love with My Robot

Pepper is one of the most sophisticated household robots in existence today. It has a body shape that reminds one of a prepubescent child, only reaching a height of 120 centimeters, and with a tablet on its chest. It constantly analyzes its owner’s emotions according to their speech, facial expressions and gestures, and responds accordingly. It also learns – for example, by analyzing which modes of behavior it can enact in order to make its owner feel better. It can even use its hands to hug people.

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Pepper the Robot. Source: The Monitor Daily.

No wonder that when the first 1,000 Pepper units were offered for sale in Japan for $1,600, they were all sold in one minute. Pepper is now the most famous household robot in the world.

Pepper is probably also the only robot you’re not allowed to have sex with.

According to the contract, written in Japanese legal speak and translated to English, users are not allowed to perform –

“(4) Acts for the purpose of sexual or indecent behavior, or for the purpose of associating with unacquainted persons of the opposite sex.”

What does this development mean? Here is the summary, in just three short points.

 

First Point: Is Pepper Being Used for Surveillance?

First, one has to wonder just how SoftBank, the robot’s distributors in Japan, is going to keep tabs on whether the robot has been sexually used or not. Since Pepper’s price includes a $200 monthly “data and insurance fee”, it’s a safe bet that every Pepper unit is transmitting some of its data back to SoftBank’s servers. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: as I’ve written in Four Robot Myths it’s Time We Let Go of, robots can no longer be seen as individual units. Instead, they are a form of a hive brain, relying on each other’s experience and insights to guide their behavior. In order to do that, they must be connected to the cloud.

This is obviously a form of surveillance. Pepper is sophisticated enough to analyze its owner’s emotions and responses, and can thus deliver a plethora of information to SoftBank, advertisers and even government authorities. The owners could probably activate a privacy mode (if there’s not a privacy mode now, it will almost certainly be added in the near future by common demand), but the rest of the time their behavior will be under close scrutiny. Not necessarily because SoftBank is actually interested in what you’re doing in your houses, but simply because it wants to improve the robots.

And, well, also because it may not want you to have sex with them.

This is where things get bizarre. It is almost certainly the case that if SoftBank wished to, it could set up a sex alarm to blare up autonomously if Pepper is repeatedly exposed to sexual acts. There doesn’t even have to be a human in the loop – just train the AI engine behind Pepper on a large enough number of porn and erotic movies, and pretty soon the robot will be able to tell by itself just what the owner is dangling in front of its cameras.

The rest of the tale is obvious: the robot will complain to SoftBank via the cloud, but will do so without sharing any pictures or videos it’s taken. In other words, it won’t share information but only its insights and understandings of what’s been going on in that house. SoftBank might issue a soft warning to the owner, asking it to act more coyly around Pepper. If such chastity alerts keep coming up, though, SoftBank might have to retrieve Pepper from that house. And almost certainly, it will not allow other Pepper units to learn from the one that has been exposed to sexual acts.

And here’s the rub: if SoftBank wants to keep on developing its robots, they must learn from each other, and thus they must be connected to the cloud. But as long as SoftBank doesn’t want them to learn how to engage in sexual acts, it will have to set some kind of a filter – meaning that the robots will have to learn to recognize sexual acts, and refuse to talk about them with other robots. And silence, in the case of an always-operational robot, is as good as any testimony.

So yes, SoftBank will know when you’re having sex with Pepper.

I’ve written extensively in the past about the meaning of private property being changed, as everything are being connected to the cloud. Tesla are selling you a car, but they still control some parts of it. Google are selling you devices for controlling your smart house – which they then can (and do) shut down from a distance. And yes, SoftBank is selling you a robot which becomes your private property – as long as you don’t do anything with it that SoftBank doesn’t like you to.

And that was only the first point.

 

Second Point: Is Sex the Answer, or the Question?

There’s been some public outrage recently about sex with robots, with an actual campaign against using robots as sex objects. I sent the leaders of the campaign, Kathleen Richardson and Erik Brilling, several questions to understand the nature of their issues with the robots. They have not answered my questions, but according to their campaign website it seems that they equate ‘robot prostitution’ with human prostitution.

“But robots don’t feel anything.” You might say now. “They don’t have feelings, or dignity of their own. Do they?”

Let’s set things straight: sexual abuse is among the most horrible things any human can do to another. The abuser is causing both temporary and permanent injury to the victim’s body and mind. That’s why we call it an abuse. But if there are no laws to protect a robot’s body, and no mind to speak of, why should we care whether someone uses a robot in a sexual way?

Richardson’s and Brilling basically claim that it doesn’t matter whether the robots are actually experiencing the joys of coitus or suffering the ignominy of prostitution. The mere fact that people will use robots in the shape of children or women for sexual release will serve to perpetuate our current society model in which women and children are being sexually abused.

Let’s approach the issue from another point of view, though. Could sex with robots actually prevent some cases of sexual abuse?

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… Or lovers? Source: Redsilverj

Assuming that robots can provide a high-quality sexual experience to human beings, it seems reasonable that some pent-up sexual tensions can be relieved using sex robots. There are arguments that porn might actually deter sexual violence, and while the debate is nowhere near to conclusion on that point, it’s interesting to ask: if robots can actually relieve human sexual tensions, and thus deter sexual violence against other human beings – should we allow that to happen, even though it objectifies robots, any by association, women and children as well?

I would wait for more data to come in on this subject before I actually advocate for sex with robots, but in the meantime we should probably refrain from making judgement on people who have sex with robots. Who knows? It might actually serve a useful purpose even in the near future. Which brings me to the third point –

 

Third Point: Don’t You Tell Me Not to have Sex with MY Robot

And really, that’s all there is to it.

 

Sorry, We’re Going to Shut down Your Smart House – Forever

Imagine that Microsoft announces tomorrow that it’s going to terminate the Windows brand. No more Windows, but at least no more Blue Screen of Death, too. The kill-command will be sent in one month from now, good luck with your life and we’re sorry for the inconvenience. Oh, and we can do that because the one-year warranty on the product has expired.

Does that seem legal to you? Or even more important: does it look like an ethical behavior? Do we, as a society, want companies to behave that way towards their customers?

Well, that is exactly what Google is doing right now: tapping into people’s houses and shutting down a certain piece of hardware which they acquired some time ago. The hardware in case is the Revolv smart home hub – a device used to control the house’s doors, lights, speakers and any other connected elements that exist in smart homes. The Revolv used to cost $299, with the price including the Revolv Hub, Revolv App, and a lifetime subscription. However, about 1.5 years ago Revolv was bought by Nest, which itself was bought by Google. Now, Google / Nest are terminating Revolv permanently.

I guess lifetimes just don’t last as much as they used to, nowadays.

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Revolv. Source: Gizmodo

To be clear, Google is not just terminating support for Revolv, or taking down the Revolv App. I could potentially accept that, even though it’s somewhat of a shaky ground. But Google is taking it one step further. Here’s what they write in their press release

“…we’re pouring all our energy into Works with Nest and are incredibly excited about what we’re making. Unfortunately, that means we can’t allocate resources to Revolv anymore and we have to shut down the service. As of May 15, 2016, your Revolv hub and app will no longer work.”

Notice the highlighted “your” Revolv hub. Can it really be called “your” device anymore, when Google can simply reach inside anytime and shut it down?

The press release includes a specific reference to warranty issues, claiming that

“…Our one-year warranty against defects in materials or workmanship has expired for all Revolv products.”

I’m going to hazard a guess that Google’s lawyers have looked into the contract, the terms and conditions and all the rest of the legalese talk needed for this decision to become public. In other words, there’s a good chance that the law allows this kind of behavior. It seems absurd – the general use of the term warranty says nothing about intentional sabotage of the device by the people in charge maintaining it – but maybe it’s legal. Maybe.

But it can’t possibly be ethical.

Of course, ethics are dictated by the norms of society. If Google’s behavior is tolerated, that means the norms of society themselves are changing.

In fact, that’s exactly what’s happening.

As I mentioned in a previous post in this blog, remote updates and cloud services lead us into a new kind of economy, where firms no longer sell their products but actually lease them to the customers without saying that outright. Tesla sells us a computer in the shape of a car, but can then update and make alterations to the software controlling the vehicle. Microsoft sells you a Windows operating system, and can badger you for eternity when the time comes for you to update into a new model. And yes, one company can sell you a piece of hardware, and two years later send a kill-command to the device in your home.

 

Why Is This Bad for You?

Why is this kind of behavior bad for the consumer? Actually, it’s not that harmful as long as firms are under legal obligation to take care of the devices they sell, unlike what Google is doing now. However, even in that case there could be an added complication. In the new winner takes all digital economy, there are usually only one or two big winners in every field. Facebook, for example, has no competitors in the social media world in English. Likewise, eighty percent of internet users rely on Google as their primary search engine. Amazon and Alibaba are competing with each other with 304 and 350 million customers respectively, and no real competition other than each other.

What happens, then, when one of these major service providers decides to shut down the lights on one of their projects? Or if hackers gain control over one of those globe-spanning services, due to the centralized nature of the service providers? There is no real and immediate alternative for many of the winner takes all digital services. The users will find themselves stranded without the products they’ve become reliant on.

You may say that the free market will make sure that companies won’t vanquish winning services. You may be right, but just realizing that companies have the power to do that should make you think. Google can, hypothetically, shut down Gmail tomorrow, or at least by the end of the year. How do we make sure that in a decade from now, Google won’t be able to also shut down your smart house, or your smart car?

 

Conclusion

We’re heading into a new economy with new rules for big firms. At this time of change, it is inevitable that some companies – including Google – will test the new surroundings to find out just how much they can get away with. A line needs to be drawn between releasing firms from their past commitment to certain apps and services, and between negatively reprogramming user end-devices.

And since the big firms are just getting larger and more influential every year, we should probably start drawing it today,

 

Did Tesla Break into Cars? or – Are We Witnessing a Decline in Private Ownership?

Jason Hughes is a white hat hacker – a ‘good’ hacker, working diligently to discover and identify ways in which existing systems can be hacked into. During one of his most recent forays, as described in TeslaRati he analyzed a “series of alphanumeric characters found embedded within Tesla’s most recent firmware 7.1”. According to Hughes, the update included the badges for the upcoming new Tesla model, the P100D. Hughes tweeted about this development to Tesla and to the public, and went happily to sleep.

And then things got weird.

According to Hughes, Tesla has attempted to access his car’s computer and significantly downgrade the firmware, assumedly in order to delete the information about the new model. Hughes managed to stop the incursion in the nick of time, and tweeted angrily about the event. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, tweeted back that he had nothing to do with it, and seemingly that’s the end of the story. Hughes is now cool with Musk, and everybody is happy again.

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But what can this incident tell us about the future of private ownership?

 

A Decline in Private Ownership?

One of Paul Saffo’s rules for effective forecasting is to “embrace the things that don’t fit”. Curious stories and anecdotes from the present can give us clues about the shape of the future. The above story seems to be a rather important clue about the shape of things to come, and about a future where personal ownership of any networked device conflict with the interests of the original manufacturer.

Tesla may or may not have a legal justification to alter the firmware installed in Hughes’ car. If you want to be generous, you can even assume that the system asked Hughes for permission to ‘update’ (actually downgrade) his firmware. Hughes was tech-savvy enough to understand the full meaning of such an update. But how many of us are in possession of such knowledge? In effect, and if Hughes is telling the truth, it turns out that Tesla attempted to alter Hughes’ car properties and functions to prevent damages to the company itself.

Of course, this is not the first incident of the kind. Seven years ago, Amazon has chosen to reach remotely into many Kindle devices held and owned by private citizens, and to delete some digital books in those devices. The books that were deleted? In a bizarre twist of fate they’re George Orwell’s books – 1984 and Animal Farm – with the first book describing a dystopian society in which the citizen has almost no power over his life. In 1984, the government has all the power. In 2016, it’s starting to seem that much of this power belongs to the big IT companies that can remotely reprogram the devices they sell us.

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Image originally from Engadget.

 

The Legal Side

I’m not saying that remote updates are bad for you. On the contrary: remote updates and upgrades of system are one of the reasons for the increasing rate of technological progress. Because of virtual upgrades, smartphones, computers and even cars no longer need to be brought physically to service stations to be upgraded. However, these two episodes are a good reminder for us that by giving the IT companies leeway into our devices, we are opening ourselves to their needs – which may not always be in parallel with our own.

I have not been able to find any legal analysis of Hughes’ and Tesla’s case, but I suspect if the case is ever being brought to court then Tesla might have to answer some difficult questions. The most important question would probably be whether the company even bothered to ask Hughes for permission to make a change in his property. If Tesla did not even do that, let them be penalized harshly, to prevent other companies from following in their footsteps.

Obviously, this is not a trend yet. I can’t just take two separate cases and cluster them together. However, the mechanism behind both incidents is virtually the same: because of the everpresent connectivity, the original manufacturers retain some control over the devices owned by end-users. Connectivity is just going to proliferate in the near future, and therefore we should keep a watchful eye for similar cases.

 

Conclusions

This is a new ground we’re travelling and testing. Never before could upgrades to physical user-owned devices be implemented so easily, to the benefit of most users – but possibly also for the detriment of some. We need to draw clear rules for how firms can access our devices and under what pretense. These rules, restrictions and laws will become clearer as we move into the future, and it’s up for the public to keep close scrutiny on lawmakers and make sure that the industry does not take over the private ownership of end-user devices.

Oh, and Microsoft? Please stop repeatedly asking me to upgrade to Windows 10. For the 74th time, I still don’t want to. And yes, I counted. Get the hint, won’t ya?

 

The Future of Kindness – and the World of Karma

Today is World Kindness Day and that serves as a wonderful starting point for a discussion of where kindness is heading to, and why we’re heading towards a World of Karma: a world filled with infinite kindness – and almost none at all.

In order to understand the future of kindness, we must first take a look at two parallel trends occurring nowadays, and analyze their impact in relation to each other. These trends are the growing Omni-connectivity, and Cognitive Computing. Let’s go quickly over each, and see how they culminate together in a world of infinite kindness.

Omni-connectivity

Omni-connectivity is my definition for a world in which everyone is connected, and everything is known. This world will be brought about by the growing Internet of Things, which connects between every-‘thing’. Every item, every object. From the floor under your feet that counts how many people have walker over it today, to the cement brick in the nearby bridge that senses when the structure is about to fail. Your mirror is also connected to the internet, as is your toothbrush and your comb. And yes, your clothes are all sending data about what’s happening to you every minute and every second of the day.

The Internet of Things is becoming a reality because of the incredible leaps forward in technology. The cost of sensors has gone down by 40% over the last ten years, while the costs of bandwidth and processing have gone down by 4,000% and 6,000% respectively over the same period of time. By the year 2020 – just five years ahead – there are expected to be 28 billion ‘things’ connected to the internet, and the number is only expected to grow larger after that.

In the Internet of Things era, everything that happens in the physical world is recorded, uploaded to the cloud as data and analyzed by computers. Very few people, if any, can remain invisible or under the shroud of anonymity. Everything you do is analyzed, quantified and catalogued in vast databases.

Cognitive Computing

The other piece of the puzzle is the growing capability of cognitive computing. Today, we are beginning to teach computers by training them: we’re showing them images of many cats so that they can gain an understanding for what a cat is, for example. Many of these computers are based on the workings of the human brain, making use of artificial neural networks, so it should come as no surprise that they can be taught basic concepts, imageries and even to play games just by seeing human beings playing them.

Computers are already better than human beings at image recognition, and it won’t take them long (probably less than two decades) to be just as proficient as human beings are at analyzing video clips as well. The computers of the near future won’t simply look for cats in videos, but instead they will focus on human emotions: are the people in the video clip happy? Are they sad, or just frustrated?

And this will just be the beginning.

Recall that in the omni-connected world, we are all monitored all the time by wearable computers that are listening to our heart beats, recording our temperature and voices, measuring our activity and the food that we eat, and everything in between. All of this data is uploaded to the cognitive computers who can determine what’s going on with our lives at any distinct moment. They can know where we are, what we do, and even how we feel about it: whether we are sad, sexually aroused, or anything in-between.

The World of Karma

We already have apps today that try to quantify kindness and good deeds, and pay you back for them. The only problem is that they’re extremely reliant on the jurisdiction of human beings, and that most people feel very uncomfortable asking for someone else to rate that kind deed they did. Or they can just lie and report from their bed that they just saved the world three times over. These challenges are difficult to overcome without some kind of a ‘god’ overlooking us all and quantifying our actions.

Now let’s call this ‘god’ an omni-computer, in an omni-connected world.

In an omni-connected world which is constantly analyzed by computers, the doings of every individual are recorded and compared to the direct impact they have on other the lives of everyone else. If I stop to help someone whose car is stuck at the side of the road, the omni-computer up above knows I performed a good deed because of the beneficial effect it had on the physiology of that poor guy I helped. And when I insult someone on the street, it similarly knows I just acted negatively. Now we only have to program the algorithms that will make the omni-computer repay my kindness.

In the world of the future, then, whenever I stop to give a helping hand to a stranger, I can know for certain that my deed is recorded, and that I will receive some kind of help in the near future in return. I may walk in the market place, feel hot and sweaty, and immediately get handed a cool beverage by a passerby. Or maybe, if I gather enough ‘kindness coins’, I can even receive larger gifts and more substantial aid from strangers. I call it The World of Karma, for obvious reasons.

While I realize such a future world sounds quite weird to us, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible or even improbable. It’s just weird – which makes it a suitable contender as one of the futures that may become real, since a future that looks just like the present is almost certainly a comforting lie that we tell ourselves.

I would like to leave you with one last thought. In the World of Karma, people’s kindness can be an enormous force for good, since everyone knows that every act of kindness is recorded, counted and will aid them in return at some point in the future. And yet, is this true kindness? Altruistic kindness, after all, is based on the idea that people help each other without expecting a return. Can such altruistic kindness exist in a world where every deed has a value, and “no good deed goes unpaid”?

And if so, is that such a bad thing?

Why School Bullying Is About to Disappear

Cody Pines is a hero, no doubt about it. When a high school bully physically assaulted his blind classmate last week, Pines was the only one of the surrounding people to actually leap forward and try to stop the fight. Admittedly his methods were somewhat harsh (he smashed the attacker to the ground with one punch), but it’s difficult not to cheer for him when watching the movie. It takes courage to act, when everybody else is just watching or making a Youtube movie.

That said, this incident is just a reminder of what’s going on in our school system. We usually don’t see what’s happening during the break, when all the pupils are playing outside the classroom. However, as I think anyone who’s ever been to a school can testify, there are plenty and plenty of fights, bullying, hair-pulling and other violent acts. And if you want to see the statistics, here are a few data points, straight from the CDC and the U.S. Department of Justice –

  • In 2011, an astounding number of 597,500 students aged 12 – 18 in the U.S. were victims of violence at school. In 2012, this number rose to 749,200
  • In 2011, 18% of students reported that there are gangs in their school.
  • In 2013, in a nationally representative survey of students in grades 9 – 12, more than eight percent reported that they were involved in a physical fight in school during last year. More than seven percent mentioned that they missed one day or more of school because they were afraid for their safety. And a whopping number of 19.6% reported being bullied in school.

Those numbers mean that students in school experience or witness fights almost constantly. That’s not surprising, of course: taking hormonally-charged teenagers, forcing them to interact with each other, and then making them stay together in the same class or school is a recipe for frustrations, anger and even violence. Basically, we’re expecting kids to play Survivor or Big Brother without resorting to violence, when even adults are known to lose their calm in such environments. What did you expect would happen?

In the headline of this article I claimed that school bullying is about to disappear, but now’s the time to admit that this forecast is only half-true. I sternly believe that physical bullying is about to go down radically in this decade and the next, while bullying of all the other sorts – such as virtual bullying and non-violent bullying in general will remain the same or even increase.

Here’s why: we’re going into a new world – the Monitored World.

The Monitored World

We are rapidly becoming surrounded by sensors. Nearly all of us, in fact, have at least five sensors in our pockets, in the shape of a smartphone. These sensors include a gyroscope, an accelerometer, a recorder, a GPS, and perhaps most importantly: a camera. Suddenly, we are all able to record whatever we see out there, and using Youtube we can share our findings with the entire world.

As of 2014, according to Pew Research Center, 64% of all American adults own a smartphone. While I have not been able to find similar statistics for youths, it seems likely that a large part of them own a smartphone as well, or will own a cheap (but functional!) one in the coming years, as prices keep going down.

In this sort of environment, any irregular activity will be immediately shared with the online audience, and will be judged accordingly. That is the public’s justice system: fully operated by the public, which is a judge, a jury and occasionally a hangman as well. Such a justice system, however, only takes note when the incident is truly extraordinarily cruel – as in the case of the blind child being beaten up. Only in such cases will the clip become viral, create a public uproar and force the authorities into action.

This is the state of things today. But how will sensors look like in five, ten or even fifteen years from now? They will be smaller, cheaper, and much more abundant. In fact, several large firms like Bosch, HP and Intel forecast that sometime between 2017 and 2022, we will have a trillion sensors in the world, which is about one hundred times the number of sensors we have today.

T Sensors forecast
The Trillion Sensors Vision. Image originally from Motherboard

What will those sensors look like? The short answer is that we won’t really notice them or think about them anymore, simply because they’ll be everywhere. They will be in our shoes and in our shirts. We’ll find them on our skins as electronic tattoos (of the kind that are being in development today) and on our eyes as the new versions of Google Glass. They’ll sit on our fingers as rings and measure our heart rate, our perspiration level and the activity we’re involved in right now. And where do you think all of the data being monitored by these devices will be sent to?

Let me answer this question with a short story about the future. Your son has just been physically bullied in school. His sensors immediately alerted you that he’s in pain and was involved in a fight, and you made a call to the school to let them know that. And as every angry dad should, you also let them know that if it happens again and they don’t break the fight early enough – you’re going to sue them for negligence. And if they do fight, you’ll know it immediately.

Now what do you think the school is going to do? Some schools will separate the two kids for good, which is hardly practical. Other schools will make the angry father understand that they can’t be responsible for everything that’s happening on their property – and then they should be willing to defend that position in court. And other schools – the ones in Silicon Valley, most probably – will take an altogether different approach and require the students to share their sensors data with the school system, to be monitored constantly by an artificial intelligence that will alert a teacher on the spot when young hearts start pumping too strongly.

These new school systems will monitor their students at all times. And why shouldn’t they? Most schools are treating the children as prisoners in any case: forced to sit for hours upon hours in one room, hearing content they don’t want to learn. When schools are required to safeguard the children from violence, do you really think they’ll care for their privacy?

Will all bullying disappear altogether? Obviously, it won’t. Some forms of bullying will become virtual, and happen in closed groups where the teachers won’t be able to discern it. Other forms of bullying – for example, when a group of popular kids excommunicate a certain student – will not be stopped so easily.

All the same, the Monitored World will largely bring an end to physical bullying… and along with it, will bring an end to kisses stolen in the dark, to young (and too young) lovers in the school’s basement, to the smoking of pot and many other unsanctioned acts. That is the meaning of the Monitored World: a world in which we must think carefully of the rules that we set to people and to students, because they will be enforced constantly.

Is that a good thing, or a bad one? The jury is still out on that, but at least we won’t have blind students being punched in the school halls.