Rocket Mail: When Technologies Fail to Rise

One of the episodes which the United States Post Service (USPS) is trying to sweep under the rug, is their attempt to use rocket mail. i.e. send mail on actual rockets. Oh, and you might want to know that the first rocket to be used that way by the USPS was a nuclear missile.

Missilemail.jpg

The idea of rocket mail was originally developed in germany in the 19th century, but never really took off. However, as missile technology improved, the USPS took note of the idea and decided to give it a shot. And so, the first official American rocket mail was launched in 1959.

The USPS chose for that purpose a Regulus cruise missile armed with a nuclear warhead. They stripped took the warhead off, and replaced it with mail containers that were supposed to withstand the impact when the missile hit the ground. The missile was launched from Virginia and reached its destination in Florida in just 22 minutes. Since the two states are around 700 miles apart (~1,200 km) that means the mail got to its destination at a speed of around 3,500 km/h. That’s pretty impressive for mail delivery.

The US Postmaster General got so excited that he publicly claimed that the event is –

“of historic significance to the peoples of the entire world”

and that –

“Before man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.”

Except, as we know very well now, they really didn’t stand on the threshold of rocket mail. The costs of rocket mail were too high – particularly for the infrastructure involved, which included the launch systems and the missile itself which couldn’t be reused. What’s more, at the same time that rocket mail was first attempted, international air travel became dramatically cheaper, so that important packages could easily be delivered in just a single day over the ocean, with no need for rockets of any kind.

Rocket mail is an historic invention which many futurists should consider whenever they gush about new technologies taking over the world. In the end, it all comes down to cost, and if that new technology is more expensive than what you currently use – or even from other technologies that are being developed at the same time – it probably won’t be used after all.

But at least the idea of rocket mail finally found use in Mission Impossible II after all – where Ethan Hunt’s sunglasses are being delivered to him via a rocket. The US Postmaster General can be proud indeed.

 

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

The Future of Bullshit Jobs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy the future / present!

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

Who Will Be Remembered into the Future?

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

That’s pretty neat, isn’t it?

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

How long are you going to live?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck!

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

Art in the Age of AI

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

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

And this is just the beginning.

In recent years, AI has managed to –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Will the Artists Do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did you get it right?


This post was originally written as an answer at Quora

Things I’ve Learned as ISIS’ Chief Technology Officer; Or – Why ISIS Loves Trump

A few months ago I received a tempting offer: to become ISIS’ chief technology officer.

How could I refuse?

Before you pick up the phone and call the police, you should know that it was ‘just’ a wargame, initiated and operated by the strategical consulting firm Wikistrat. Many experts on ISIS and the Middle East in general have taken part in the wargame, and have taken roles in some of the sides that are waging war right now on Syrian soil – from Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, to the Western-backed rebels and even ISIS.

This kind of wargames is pretty common in security organizations, in order to understand what the enemy thinks like. As Harper Lee wrote, “You never really understand a man… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

And so, to understand ISIS, I climbed into its skin, and started thinking aloud and discussing with my ISIS teammates what we could do to really overwhelm our enemies.

But who are those enemies?

In one word, everyone.

This is not an overestimate. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS and its self-proclaimed caliph, has warned Muslims in 2015 that the organization’s war is – “the Muslims’ war altogether. It is the war of every Muslim in every place, and the Islamic State is merely the spearhead in this war.”

Other spiritual authorities who help explain ISIS’ policies to foreigners and potential converts, agree with Baghdadi. The influential Muslim preacher Abu Baraa, has similarly stated that “the world is divided into two camps. Make sure you are on the side of the Muslims. You shouldn’t be on the side of the infidels, nor should you be on the fence, neutral…”

This approach is, of course, quite comfortable for ISIS, since the organization needs to draw as many Muslims as possible to its camp. And so, thinking as ISIS, we realized that we must find a way to turn this seemingly-small conflict of ours into a full-blown religious war: Muslims against everyone else.

Unfortunately, it seems most Muslims around the world do not agree with those ideas.

How could we convince them into accepting the truth of the global religious war?

It was obvious that we needed to create a fracture between the Muslim and Christian world, but world leaders weren’t playing to our tune. The last American president, Barack Obama, fiercely refused to blame Islam for terror attacks, emphasizing that “We are not at war with Islam.”

French president Francois Hollande was even worse for our cause: after an entire summer of terror attacks in France, he still refused to blame Islam. Instead, he instituted a new Foundation for Islam in France, to improve relations with the nation’s Muslim community.

The situation was clearly dire. We needed reinforcements in fighters from Western countries. We needed Muslims to join us, or at the very least rebel against their Western governments, but very few were joining us from Europe. Reports put the number of European Muslims joining ISIS at barely 4,000, out of 19 million Muslims living in Europe. That means just 0.02% of the Muslim population actually cared enough about ISIS to join us!

Things were even worse in the USA, in which, according to the Pew Research Center, Muslims were generally content with their lives. They were just as likely as other Americans to have earned college degrees and attended graduate schools, and to report household incomes of $100,000 or more. Nearly two thirds of Muslims stated that they “do not see a conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society”. Not much chance to incite a holy war there.

So we agreed on trying the usual things: planning terror attacks, making as much noise as we possibly could, keep on the fight in the Middle East and recruiting Muslims on social media. But we realized that things really needed to change if radical Islam were to have any chance at all. We needed a new kind of world leader: one who would play by our ideas of a global conflict; one who would close borders for Muslims, and make Muslim immigrants feel unwanted in their countries; one who would turn a deaf ear to the plea of refugees, simply because they came from Muslim countries.

After a single week in ISIS, it was clear that the organization desperately need a world leader who thinks and acts like that.

Do you happen to know someone who might fit that bill?

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What Can You Do Today to be Remembered for the Next 100,000 Years?

I’ve recently began writing on Quora (and yes, that’s just one of the reasons I haven’t been posting here as much as I should). One of the recent questions I’ve been asked to answer has been about the far-far-away future. Specifically –

“What can you do today to be remembered 10,000 or 100,000 years from now?”

So if you’re wondering along the same lines, here’s my answer.


This is a tough one, but I think I’ve got the solution you’re looking for. Before I hand it over to you, let’s see why the most intuitive idea – that of leaving a time capsule buried somewhere in the ground – is also probably the wrong way to solve this puzzle.

A time capsule is a box you can bury in the ground and will keep your writings in pristine conditions right up to the moment it will be opened by your son’s son’s son’s son’s son’s (repeat a few thousand times) son. Let’s call him… Multison.

So, what will you leave in the time capsule for dear multison? Your personal diary? Newspaper clippings about you? If that’s the case, then you should know that even the best preserved books and scrolls will decay to dust within a few thousand years, unless you keep them in vacuum conditions and without touching them.

So maybe leave him a recording? That’s great, but be sure to use the right kind of recording equipment, like Milleniatta’s M-Disc DVDs which are supposed to last for ~10,000 years (no refunds).

But here’s an even more difficult problem: language evolves. We can barely understand the English in Shakespearian plays, which were written less than 500 years ago. Even if you were to write yourself into a book and leave it in a well-preserved time capsule for 10,000 years, it is likely that nobody will be able to read it when it opens. The same applies for any kind of recording.

So what can you do? Etch your portrait on a cave’s wall, like the cavemen did? That’s great, except that you’ll need to do it in thousands of caves, just for the chance that some drawings will survive. And what can multison learn about you from an etched portrait with no words? Basically, all that we know about the cavemen from their drawings is which animals they used to hunt. That’s not a very efficient form to transmit information through the ages.

Another possibility (and one that I’ve considered doing myself) is to genetically engineer a bacteria that contains information about you in its genetic code. Scientists have already shown they can write information in the DNA of a bacteria, turning it into a living hard drive. Some microorganisms should have room enough for thousands of bytes of data, and each time they replicate, each of the descendants will carry the message forward into the future. You have the evolving language issue here again, but at least you’ll get the text of message across to multison. He should really appreciate all the effort you’ve put into this, by the way.

But he probably won’t even know about it, because bacteria are not great copywriters. Every time your bacteria divides into two, some of its DNA will mutate. When critical genes mutate, the bacteria dies. But your text is not essential to the germ’s continued existence, and so it is most likely that in a few thousand years (probably closer to a decade), the bacteria will just shed off the extra-DNA load.

Have you despaired already? Well, don’t, because here is a chart that could inspire hope again. It’s from Steward Brand’s highly recommended book “The Clock of the Long Now”, and it shows the time frames in which changes occur.

Brand believes that each ‘layer’ changes and evolves at different paces. Fashion changes by the week, while changes in commerce and infrastructure take years to accomplish, and (unfortunately) so do changes in governance. Culture and nature, on the other hand, take thousands of years to change. We still know of the idea of Zeus, the Greek god, even though there are almost no Zeus-worshippers today. And we still rememebr the myths of the bible, even though their origins are thousands of years old.

So my suggestion for you? Start a new cultural trend, and make sure to imbue it with all the properties that will make it stay viable through the ages. You can create a religion, for example. It’s easier than it sounds. The Mormon religion was only created two hundred years ago, with amazingly delusional claims, which didn’t seem to bother anyone anyway. And now you have a little more than 15 million Mormons in the world. If they keep up this pace, they’ll be a major religion within a few hundred years, and their founder and prophet, Joseph Smith will live for a very long time in their collective memory.

So a religion is probably the best solution, since it’s a self-conserving mechanism for propagating knowledge down the ages. You can even include commandments to fight other religions (and so increase your religion’s resistance to being overtaken by other ideas), or command your worshippers to mention your name every day so that they never forget it. Or that they should respect their mothers and fathers, so that people will want to teach the religion to their children. Or that they shouldn’t kill anyone (except for blasphemers, of course) so that the number of worshippers doesn’t dwindle. Or that…

Actually, now that I think of it, you may be too late.

Good luck outfighting Jehovah, Jesus and Muhammad.


Source for featured image: Neon Poisoning blog

The Singularity: What It Means for Us

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.