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?
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.
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?
“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 – “
“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.
“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.
A few months ago I wrote in this blog about the way augmented reality games will transform the face of the gaming industry: they’ll turn the entire physical world into a gaming arena, so that players would have to actually walk around streets and cities to take part in games. I also made a forecast that players in such games will be divided into factions in order to create and legitimize rivalries and interesting conflicts. Now Pokemon Go has been released, and both forecasts have been proven true immediately.
By combining the elements of augmented reality and creating factions, Pokemon Go has become an incredibly successful phenomenon. It is now the biggest mobile game in U.S. history, with more users than Twitter, and more daily usage time than social media apps like WhatsApp, Instagram or Snapchat. One picture is worth a thousand words, and I especially like this one of a man capturing a wild Pidgey pokemon while his wife is busy giving birth.
But is the game here to stay? And what will its impact be on society?
Pokemon Go in the Long Haul
It’s no wonder Pokemon Go has reached such heights of virality. Because of the game’s interactions with the physical world, people are being seen playing it everywhere, and in effect become walking commercials for the game. Pokemon Go also builds on the long history – almost twenty years – of pokemon hunting which ensures that anyone who’s ever hunted pokemon just had to download the app.
Will the game maintain its hype for long? That’s difficult to answer. Dan Porter, one of the creators of Draw Something – a game that garnered 50 million downloads in just 50 days – wrote a great piece on the subject. He believes, in short, that the game is a temporary fad. It may take a year for most people to fall off the bandwagon, so that only a few millions of the hardcore gamers will remain. That’s still an impressive number, but it’s far from the current hype. As he says –
“For the casual Pokemon Go player, the joy of early play I believe will eventually be replaced by gyms that are too competitive and Pokemon that are too hard to find.”
I agree with his analysis, but it does depend on one important parameter: that the game does not undergo evolution itself, and continually readapt itself to different groups of users. Other social games, like World of Warcraft, have successfully undergone this transition to maintain a large user base for more than a decade. Niantic may be able to do that, or it may not. In the long haul it doesn’t matter: other, more successful, AR games will take over.
Pokemon Go is bringing in a lot of revenues right now, with the estimates ranging from $1 to $2.3 million a day. Some analysts believe that the game could pull in a billion dollars a year once it is launched worldwide. That’s a lot of money, and every half-decent gaming company is going to join the race for AR very soon. It could be Blizzard that will recreate Starcraft’s fame in an AR fashion, with teams running around buildings, collecting virtual resources and ambushing each other. Or maybe Magic the Gathering or Hearthstone, with players who can collect thousands of different cards in Hearthstops around the world much like Pokemon Go, and use them to build decks and fight each other. Heck, I’d play those, and I bet so would the tens of millions of gamers whose childhood was shaped by these games. The dam gates, in short, have been broken open. AR games are here to stay.
And so we must understand the consequences of such games on society.
A Whole New World
Pokemon Go is already starting to change the way people interact with each other. I took the following picture from my house’s window a few days ago, depicting several people walking together, eyes on their phones, without talking with each other – and yet all collaborating and being coordinated with each other. They were connected via the layer of augmented reality. In effect, they were in a world of their own, which is only tenuously connected to the physical world.
In Australia, a hastily advertised Pokemon Go meeting has brought together 2,000 players to a single park, where they all hunted pokemon together. And coffee shops-turned-gyms around the world have suddenly found themselves buzzing with customers who came for the win – and stayed for the latte. And of course, the White House has been turned into a gym, with all three Pokemon Go teams competing over it.
The game has made people to go to places they would not ordinarily go to, in their search for pokemon. As a result, at least two dead bodies have been discovered so far by players. If you watch players walking on the streets, you’ll also notice their peculiar pattern of movement: instead of following the road, they’ll periodically stop, check their smartphones and change course – sometimes making a U-turn. They’re not following the infrastructure in the physical world, but rather obeying a virtual infrastructure and entities: pokestops and pokemon.
And that’s just a sign of what’s coming, and of how power – the power to influence people and their choices – is starting to shift from governments to private hands.
The Power Shift
What is power? While many philosophers believed that governments had power over their citizens because of their ability to mobilize policemen, the French philosophers Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault realized that the power control mechanisms are inherent in society itself. Whenever two people in a society exchange words with each other, they also implicitly make clear how each should behave.
Infrastructure has the same effect over people. And has been used since time immemorial as a mechanism for directing the populace. For a very long time now, governments used to control the infrastructure in urban places. Governments paved roads, installed traffic lights and added signs with streets names. This control over infrastructure arose partly because some projects, like road paving, are so expensive but also because things like traffic lights and signs have an immense influence over people’s behavior. They tell us where we’re allowed to go and when, and essentially make the government’s decisions manifest and understandable for everyone. There’s a very good reason that I couldn’t erect a new traffic sign even if I wanted to.
But now, with Pokemon Go, the gaming industry is doing just that: it’s creating an alternative virtual reality that has new rules and different kinds of infrastructures, and merges that virtual reality with our physical one so that people can choose which to obey.
Is it any wonder that authorities everywhere are less than happy with the game? It has fatwas being issued against it, religious leaders wanting to ban it, Russian politicians speaking against it, and police and fire explaining to citizens that they can’t just walk into jails and fire stations in their search for pokemon.
In the long run, Pokemon Go and AR in general symbolizes a new kind of freedom: a freedom from the physical infrastructure that could only be created and controlled by centralized governments. And at the very same time, the power to create virtual infrastructure and direct people’s movement is shifting to the industry.
What does that mean?
In the short term, we’re bound to see this power being put to good use. In the coming decade we’ll see Pokemon Go and other AR games being used to direct people where they could bring the most good. When a kid will get lost in the wilderness, Niantic will populate the area with rare pokemon so that hundreds and thousands of people will come search for them – and for the child too. Certain dangerous areas will bear virtual signs, or even deduct points from players who enter them. Special ‘diet’ pokemon will be found at the healthy food sections in stores.
In the long run, the real risk is that the power will shift over to the industry, which unlike the elected government does not have any built-in mechanisms for mitigating that power. That power could be used to send people to junk food stores like McDonald’s, which as it turns out is already in partnership with Pokemon Go. But more than that, AR games could be used to encourage people to take part in rallies, in political demonstrations, or even simply to control their movement in the streets.
This power shift does not necessarily have to be a bad thing, but we need to be aware of it and constantly ask what kind of hidden agendas do these AR games hold, so that the public can exercise some measure of control over the industry as well. Does Pokemon Go encourage us to visit McDonald’s, even though it ultimately damages our health? Well, a public outcry may put a stop to that kind of collaboration.
We’ve already realized that firms that control the virtual medium, like Facebook, gain power to influence people’s thinking and knowledge. We’ve also learned that Facebook has been using that power to influence politics – although in a bumbling, good-natured way, and seemingly without really meaning to. Now that the physical world and the virtual world become adjoined, we need to understand that the companies who control the virtual layer gain power that needs to be scrutinized and monitored carefully.
Pokemon Go is not going to change the world on its own, but it’s one of the first indicators that can tell us how things are about to change when physical reality is augmented by virtual ones. The critical question we must ask is who controls those added layers of reality, and how can we put constraints on the power they gain over us. Because we may end up controlling all the pokemon, but who will gain control over us?
In the last few days we’ve been hearing all kinds of allegations about the Brexit voters. They’ve been accused of racism, of narrow mindedness, and stupidity in general. We’ve been assured that the Brexit voters are the radical right-wing nationalists. But now come the results of the surveys and demonstrate that the reasons behind Brexit are more complex. It turns out that the main force that turned the tables came from the working-class voters.
In other words, the decision was made by the people who are most frustrated about the new economy and their perceived and very real inability to influence it.
A few months ago I wrote in this blog that the UK is turning into a plutonomy: a nation in which the wealthy and the prosperous are driving the economy, while everybody else tags along. The term plutonomy first appeared in a memo sent by the global bank Citigroup to its wealthiest clients. As the writers of the memo report –
“There is no such thing as “The U.S. Consumer” or “UK Consumer”, but rich and poor consumers in these countries… The rich are getting richer; they dominate spending. Their trend of getting richer looks unlikely to end anytime soon.”
The data reveals that this analysis has much merit. As The Equality Trust reports, the top 10% of earners in the UK have an income over 27 times larger than that of the poorest 10%.
It also turns out that in terms of income distribution, the UK is one of the most unequal developed countries in the world.
Of course the rich and the wealthy – residing mainly in London and in the South East – are largely satisfied with current affairs. In the 2014 State of the Nation poll inquiring about the level of trust citizens place in the UK political parties in general, those two regions were the most trusting of all. In the meantime, citizens from all other parts of the country gave devastatingly low grades (an average of 3.54 out of 10) to indicate their lack of trust in UK political parties.
The evidence, when taken together, means that the working class is dissatisfied and frustrated. The average worker in the UK knows he or she has no real power, and is feeling increasingly alienated from the political, economic and cultural elites in London. As Peter Mandler recently wrote –
“…the rest of the country has felt more and more excluded, not only from participation in the creativity and prosperity of London, but more crucially from power.”
So what happens when those citizens of a plutonomy, who realize they have no real power, are suddenly given the option to influence events? They eagerly grab at the rope they’ve been given, and yank on it – and damn the consequences. This is the real story behind Brexit: that of people who’ve been deprived of power for the last decade or two, suddenly being given the chance to make themselves heard. And they certainly did.
This analysis has implications for the future of other countries as well. The United Kingdom is not the most unequal nation in terms of income distribution. There are five other countries in the developed world with worse inequality: Mexico, Israel, Spain, Greece and the United States of America. These are all countries in which large parts of the electorate feel neglected and removed from power in the day-to-day happenings. But once every four years in America, the public gets the chance to choose who’ll sit in the White House – and Donald Trump campaign’s success shows just how much the public wants change and distrusts the current state of affairs.
Brexit is a demonstration of how the inherent tensions in plutonomies can explode, since the rich and wealthy may control the economy, but the current political system still gives some power to the public. This means that the rich still can’t allow themselves to ignore the general public, or the public will come back to bite them when they least expect it.
Right now, the general consensus among the wealthy and the celebrities of the UK is that the public is dumb. It’s not. It’s just frustrated and wants to make a point. If the people on top want to avoid such disastrous decision making in the future, they should stop blaming the public, and instead find ways to change the political environment so that the public will gain more power in the daily affairs of nations. Any other course of action would lead to tensions building up again and being released explosively at the next Spainexit, Greecexit, or – who knows – maybe even Trumpexit.
“You don’t understand,” said the soldier who sat next me, who was speaking into his phone. His hand was shaking. “They’re dangerous. Really dangerous. You need to find somewhere safe! Go to your mother, and call me as soon as you get there.”
He hung up, and held the phone with both hands on his lap. I could see the beads of sweat forming on his forehead.
“Is everything OK? Is there something I can help with?” I asked politely.
He shot a frightened look toward me. “Did you hear what’s happening on LinkedIn?” he asked.
“A bit,” I said. “What, exactly? What did they do now?”
“It’s not what they did, it’s what was done to them,” he muttered, and buried his head between his hands. “Didn’t you hear that LinkedIn was hacked? One hundred and seventeen million encrypted user passwords are now being sold to anyone who can pay all of two thousand dollars for them, and I’ve heard that hackers who’ve scanned these encrypted passwords were able to decipher ninety percent of them. That means that over one hundred million user accounts are now hacked. What’s more, I’ve just returned from Afghanistan. Do you know what this means?”
“No,” I said. “What?”
“I fought the Taliban there, and now, they know who I am,” he muttered. “I had always worn a nametag on my uniform, and any Afghan wanting to take revenge on me will have already found my password. He’ll know where I live, based on the personal details in my account. They know who my wife is. They know how to get to our house!”
“Oh.” I said. “This is the world without privacy that we’re all afraid of. But it’s OK. They won’t find your wife.”
He looked up with a miserable glance. “Why not?”
“Because LinkedIn was already hacked once, four years ago, in 2012.” I explained. “They just didn’t understand how serious the problem was back then. They thought that only six and a half million passwords were stolen. Now, it turns out for all of that time, Russian hackers had all of those passwords, and although they really may have used them during that time – they might have already sold them to the Chinese, to ISIS, or to other centers of power – you can still set your mind at ease, provided that you changed your password.”
“Actually, I did,” he said. “In 2013, I think.”
“So you see? Everything’s OK,” I reassured him. “Or, in more exact terms, sufficiently OK, since this whole episode should teach us all an important lesson. Real privacy doesn’t exist any more. One of the more secured companies in the world was hacked, and this event wasn’t exposed for four years. Now, think about it, and tell me, yourself – what are the chances that some of the world’s databases hadn’t been hacked yet by the intelligence services of countries like Russia, China, or even the United States, working under the radar?”
He thought for a moment. “None?” he suggested.
“That’s what I think, too.” I said. “Hey, Snowden managed to steal enormous amounts of information from the National Security Agency of the United States, and no one was even aware that the information disappeared until he let the cat out of the bag himself. He was just one more citizen concerned about what this agency was doing. What are the chances that the Chinese haven’t managed to bribe other people at the agency to send them the information? Or that the United States hadn’t located its own agents in Russian or Chinese communities, or anywhere else in the world? Chances are that all of this information about us – not just passwords, but identifying particulars, residential addresses, and so on – are already in the hands of large governments around the world. And yes, ISIS may also have gotten its hands on it, though that’s a bit less likely, since they aren’t as technologically advanced. But one day, a Russian or Chinese Snowden will funnel all of this information to Wikileaks, and we’ll all know about everyone else.”
“But only within the period that information was gathered in,” he said.
“Right,” I answered. “That’s why I’m claiming that we’ve all lost our historical privacy. In other words, even if one day we enact new legislation to protect private information, a large portion of the information will already be circulating around the world, but it’s only valid during the period it was gathered in. It’s nearly certain that by today, various intelligence services can piece together impressive profiles of much of the world’s population, though they can only rely on the information gathered during that time. So even if ISIS managed to get its hands on those passwords, and even if they managed to hack your profile during the period between 2012 and 2013 and extract data about you without you knowing about it, the big question is if you were even married at the time.”
“Yup,” he said. “But I was married to my ex-wife, in a house I used to live in. Does this mean that ISIS could get to her?
“If all of these assumptions are true, then yes.” I said. “Maybe you should call her and warn her?”
He hesitated for a moment, and shrugged.
“It’s OK,” he said. “She’ll manage.”
This article was originally written by me in Hebrew, and translated and published at vpnMentor.
Eric just shook his head. Something was obviously bothering him, and not even Flatbread Company’s pizza (quite possibly the best pizza in the known universe, or in Rhose Island) could provide him with some peace of mind.
“It’s the bot.” He finally erupted at me. “That damned bot. It’s going to take over my job.”
“You’re a teaching assistant.” I reminded him. “It’s not a real job. You barely have enough money to eat.”
“Well, it’s some kind of a job, at least.” He said bitterly. “And soon it’ll be gone too. I just heard that in Georgia’s Technological Institute they actually managed to have a bot – an artificial intelligence – perform as a teaching assistant, and no one noticed anything strange!”
“Yeah, I remember.” I remembered. “It happened in the last semester. What was the bot’s name again?”
“It all happened in a course about AI, that Prof. Ashok Goel gave in Georgia Tech.” He explained. “Goel realized that the teaching assistants in the course were swamped with questions from students, so he decided to train an artificial intelligence that would help the teaching assistants. The AI went over forty thousand questions, answers and comments written by students and teaching assistants in the course’s forum, and was trained to similarly answer new questions.”
“So how well did it go?” I asked.
“Wonderful. Just wonderful.” He sighed. “The AI, masquerading as Jill Watson, answered students’ questions throughout the semester, and nobody realized that there’s not a human being behind the username. Some students even wanted to nominate ‘her’ as an outstanding teaching assistant.”
“Well, where’s the harm in that?” I asked. “After all, she did lower the work volume for all the human teaching assistants, and the students obviously feel fine about that. So who cares?”
He sent a dirty look my way. “I care – the one who needs a job, even a horrible one like this, to live.” He said. “Just think about it: in a few years, when every course is managed by a bunch of AIs, there won’t be as many jobs open for human teaching assistants. Or maybe not even for teachers!”
“You need to think about this differently.” I advised him. “The positive side is that there’s still place for human teaching assistants, as long as they know how to work with the automated ones. After all, even the best AI in the world, at the moment, doesn’t know how to answer all the questions. There’s still a place for human common sense. So there’s definitely going to be a place for the human teaching assistant, but he’ll just have to be the best as what he does: he’ll need to operate several automated assistants at the same time that will handle the routine questions, and will pass to him only the most bizarre and complex questions; He’ll need to know how to work with computers and AI, but also to have good social skills to solve difficult situations for students; And he’ll need to be reliable enough to do all of the above proficiently over time. So yes, lots of people are going to compete for this one job, but I’m sure you can succeed at it!”
Eric didn’t look convinced. Quite honestly, I wasn’t either.
“Well,” I tried, “you can always switch occupations. For example, you can become a psychologist…”
“Ok, fine!” I said. “So just sell flowers or something!”
“Facebook is now opening a new bot service, so that people can open an online conversation with them, and order food, flowers and other products.” He said with frustration. “So you see? Nothing left for humans like us.”
“Well,” I thought hard. “There must be some things left for us to do. Like, you see that girl over there at the end of the bar? Cute, isn’t she? Did you notice she was looking at your for the last hour?”
He followed my eyes. “Yes.” He said, and I could hear the gears start turning in his head.
“Think about it.” I continued. “She’s probably interested in you, but doesn’t know how to approach.”
He thought about it. “I bet she doesn’t know what to say to me.”
“She doesn’t know how best to attract my attention.” He went on.
“That’s right!” I said.
“She needs help!” He decided. “And I’m just the guy who can help her. Help everyone!”
He stood up resolutely and went for the exit.
“Where are you going?” I called after him. “She’s right here!”
He turned back to me, and I winced at the sight of his glowing eyes – the sure sign of an engineer at work.
“This problem can definitely be solved using a bot.” He said, and went outside. I could barely hear his muffled voice carrying on behind the door. “And I’m about to do just that!”
I went back to my seat, and raised my glass in what I hoped was a comforting salute to the girl on the other side of the bar. She may not realize it quite yet, but soon bots will be able to replace human beings in yet another role.
The Uber driver was being exceptionally nice to me this morning.
“Nice to meet you, sir!” He greeted me cheerily. “I see you want to get to the university. Please, come on in! Can I offer you a bottle of mineral water? Or maybe some pretzels?”
“Thanks.” I said. I looked at the ceiling. No hidden cameras there. “You’re very nice. Very, very nice.”
“Yes, I know.” His face shone in understanding. “But it pays big time. I get good grades from the customers, so Uber’s algorithm is providing me with even more passengers all the time. It just pays to be nice.”
“Oh, so you’re just like those lawyers, physicians and accountants?”
“I don’t know.” He said. “Am I?”
“Absolutely.” I said. “Or rather, soon they’re going to be a lot like you: just plain nice. The thing is, the knowledge industries – and by that I mean professions which require that human beings go over data and develop insights – are undergoing automation. That means artificial intelligence is going to perform a major part of the work in those professions, and then the human workers – the successful ones, at least – will become nice and more polite to their customers.”
“Take Uber for example.” I gestured at the smartphone at the dashboard. “Taxi drivers partly deal with knowledge generation: they receive information from the passenger about the desired destination, and they have to come up with the knowledge of how to get there, based on their memory of the roads. In the past, a mere decade ago, taxi drivers needed to know the streets of the city like the back of their hand.”
“But today we have GPS.” Said my driver.
“Exactly.” I said. “Today, modern taxi drivers rely on a virtual assistant. It’s not just a GPS that tells you where you are. More advanced apps like Waze and Google Maps also show you how best to reach your destination, with vocal instructions at each step of the way. These virtual assistants allow anyone to be a taxi driver. Even if you never drove in a certain city in the past, you can still do a satisfactory job. In effect, the AI has equalized the playing ground in the field of taxi driving, since it lowered to a minimum the needed skill level. So how can a cabby still distinguish himself and gain an advantage over other drivers?”
“He has to be nice.” Smiled the guy at the wheel. I wondered to myself if he ever stops smiling.
“That’s what we see today.” I agreed. “The passengers are rating every driver according to the experience they had in his cab, since that is the main criteria left when all the others are equal. And Uber is helping the process of selecting for niceness, since they stop working with drivers who aren’t nice enough.”
“But what does it have to do with lawyers, accountants and physicians?” Asked the driver.
“We’re beginning to see a similar process in other knowledge-based professions.” I explained. “For example, just last week a new AI engine made the news: it’s starting to work in a big law firm, as a consultant to lawyers. And no wonder: this AI can read and understand plain English. When asked legal questions, the AI conducts research by going over hundreds of thousands of legal papers and precedents in seconds, and produces a final answers report with detailed explanations about how it has reached each answer. It even learns from experience, so that the more you work with it – the better it becomes.”
“So we won’t even need lawyers in the future?” Finally, the guy’s smile became genuine.
“Well, we may reach that point in the end, but it’ll take quite some time for us to get there.” I said. “And until that time, we’ll see AI engines that will provide free legal consultation online. This kind of a free consultation will suffice for some simple cases, but in the more sophisticated cases people will still want a living lawyer in the flesh, who’ll explain to them how they should act and will represent them in court. But how will people select their lawyers out of the nearly-infinite number of law school graduates out there?”
“According to their skill level.” Suggested the driver.’
“Well, that’s the thing. Everyone’s skills will be near equal. It won’t even matter if the lawyers have a big firm behind them. The size of the firm used to matter because it meant the top lawyers could employ tens of interns to browse through precedents for them. But pretty soon, AI will be able to do that as well. So when all lawyers – or at least most – are equal in skills and performance, the most employed lawyers will be the nice ones. They will be those who treat the customer in the best way possible: they will greet their clients with a smile, offer them a cup of tea when they set for in the office, and will have great conversational skills with which to explain to the client what’s going on in court.”
“And the same will happen with accountants and physicians?” He asked.
“It’s happening right now.” I said. “The work of accountants is becoming easier than ever before because of automation, and so accountants must be nicer than ever before. Soon, we’ll see the same phenomenon in the medical professions as well. When AI can equalize the knowledge level of most physicians, they will be selected according to the way they treat their patients. The patients will flock to the nicer physicians. In fact, the professionals treating the patients won’t even have to have a deep understanding in the field of medicine, just as today’s cabbies don’t need to fully remember the roads in the city. Instead, the medical professionals will have to understand people. They will need to relate to their patients, to figure them out, to find out what’s really bothering them, and to consult with the AI in order to come up with the insights they need in order to solve the patients’ issues.”
“So we gotta keep the niceness on.” Summarized my driver, as he parked the car in front of the entrance to the mall. “And provide the best customer service possible.”
“That’s my best advice right now about work in the future.” I agreed. I opened the door and started getting out of the car, and then hesitated. I turned on my smartphone. “I’m giving you five stars for the ride. Can you give me five too?”
His gaze lingered on me for a long time.
“Sorry.” He finally said. “You talk too much, and really – that’s not very nice.”