Worst-case Technological Scenarios for 2016: from A.I. Disaster to First DIY Pathogen

 

The futurist Ian Pearson, in his fascinating blog The More Accurate Guide to the Future, has recently directed my attention to a new report by Bloomberg Business. Just two days ago, Bloomberg Business published a wonderful short report that identifies ten of the worst-case scenarios for 2016. In order to write the report, Bloomberg’s staff has asked –

“…dozens of former and current diplomats, geopolitical strategists, security consultants, and economists to identify the possible worst-case scenarios, based on current global conflicts, that concern them most heading into 2016.”

I really love this approach, since currently many futurists – particularly the technology-oriented ones – are focusing mainly on all the good that will come to us soon enough. Ray Kurzweil and Tony Seba (in his book Clean Disruption) are forecasting a future with abundant energy; Peter Diamandis believes we are about to experience a new consumerism wave by “the rising billion” from the developing world; Aubrey De-Grey forecasts that we’ll uncover means to stop aging in the foreseeable future. And I tend to agree with them all, at least generally: humanity is rapidly becoming more technologically advanced and more efficient. If these upward trends will continue, we will experience an abundance of resources and a life quality that far surpasses that of our ancestors.

But what if it all goes wrong?

When analyzing the trends of the present, we often tend to ignore the potential catastrophes, the disasters, and the irregularities and ‘breaking points’ that could occur. Or rather, we acknowledge that such irregularities could happen, but we often attempt to focus on the good instead of the bad. If there’s one thing that human beings love, after all, it’s feeling in control – and unexpected events show us the truth about reality: that much of it is out of our hands.

Bloomberg is taking the opposite approach with the current report (more of a short article, really): they have collected ten of the worst-case scenarios that could still conceivably happen, and have tried to understand how they could come about, and what their consequences would be.

The scenarios range widely in the areas they cover, from Putin sidelining America, to Israel attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities, and down to Trump winning the presidential elections in the United States. There’s even mention of climate change heating up, and the impact harsh winters and deadly summers would have on the world.

Strangely enough, the list includes only one scenario dealing with technologies: namely, banks being hit by a massive cyber-attack. In that aspect, I think Bloomberg are shining a light on a very large hole in geopolitical and social forecasting: the fact that technology-oriented futurists are almost never included in such discussions. Their ideas are usually far too bizarre and alienating for the silver-haired generals, retired diplomats and senior consultants who are involved in those discussions. And yet, technologies are a major driving force changing the world. How could we keep them aside?

 

Technological Worse-Case Scenarios

Here are a few of my own worse-case scenarios for 2016, revolving around technological breakthroughs. I’ve tried to stick to the present as much as possible, so there are no scientific breakthroughs in this list (it’s impossible to forecast those), and no “cure to aging” or “abundant energy” in 2016. That said, quite a lot of horrible stuff could happen with technologies. Such as –

  • Proliferation of 3D-printed firearms: a single proficient designer could come up with a new design for 3D-printed firearms that will reach efficiency level comparable to that of mass-manufactured weapons. The design will spread like wildfire through peer-to-peer services, and will lead to complete overhaul of the firearm registration protocols in many countries.
  • First pathogen created by CRISPR technology: biology enthusiasts are now using CRISPR technology – a genetic engineering method so efficient and powerful that ten years ago it would’ve been considered the stuff of science fiction. It’s incredibly easy – at least compared to the past – to genetically manipulate bacteria and viruses using this technology. My worst case scenario in this case is that one bright teenager with the right tools at his hands will create a new pathogen, release it to the environment and worse – brag about it online. Even if that pathogen will prove to be relatively harmless, the mass scare that will follow will stop research in genetic engineering laboratories around the world, and create panic about Do-It-Yourself enthusiasts.
  • A major, globe-spanning A. disaster: whether it’s due to hacking or to simple programming mistake, an important A.I. will malfunction. Maybe it will be one – or several – of the algorithms currently trading at stock markets, largely autonomously since they’re conducting a new deal every 740 nanoseconds. No human being can follow their deals on the spot. A previous disaster in that front has already led in 2012 to one algorithm operated by Knight Capital, purchasing stocks at inflated costs totaling $7 billion – in just 45 minutes. The stock market survived (even if Knight Capital’s stock did not), but what would happen if a few algorithms go out of order at the same time, or in response to one another? That could easily happen in 2016.
  • First implant virus: implants like cardiac pacemakers, or external implants like insulin pumps, can be hacked relatively easily. They do not pack much in the way of security, since they need to be as small and energy efficient as possible. In many cases they are also relying on wireless connection with the external environment. In my worst-case scenario for 2016, a terrorist would manage to hack a pacemaker and create a virus that would spread from one pacemaker to another by relying on wireless communication between the devices. Finally, at a certain date – maybe September 11? – the virus would disable all pacemakers at the same time, or make them send a burst of electricity through the patient’s heart, essentially sending them into a cardiac arrest.

 

This blog post is not meant to create panic or mass hysteria, but to highlight some of the worst-case scenarios in the technological arena. There are many other possible worst-case scenarios, and Ian Perarson details a few others in his blog post. My purpose in detailing these is simple: we can’t ignore such scenarios, or keep on living our lives with the assumption that “everything is gonna be alright”. We need to plan ahead and consider worst-case scenarios to be better prepared for the future.

Do you have ideas for your own technological worst-case scenarios for the year 2016? Write them down in the comments section!

 

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Bionic Ears and Microphone Fingernails – Oh My!

Everywhere you go, you can find scientists and engineers doing 3-D printing. They may be using it to print bridges over water, or buildings and houses, or even hearts and livers and skull parts. In fact, we’re hearing so much about 3-D printers creating the normal and ordinary stuff all over again, that it’s becoming pretty boring.

This, of course, is how technology makes progress: slowly, and with iterative changes being added all the time. We’re currently using 3-D printers just to create all the old stuff, which we’re used to. The makers and creators are mainly interested today in demonstrating the capabilities of the printers, and put less emphasis on actually innovating and creating items that have never existed before, and of course, the clients and customers don’t want anything too extraordinary as well. That’s the reason we’re 3-D printing a prosthetic ear which looks just like a normal ear, instead of printing a Vulcan ear.

What happens if we let go of the ordinary and customary, and begin rethinking and reimagining the items and organs we currently have? That’s just what Manu S. Mannoor, Michael C. McAlpine and their groups did in Princeton and Johns Hopkins Universities. They made use of a 3-D printer to create a cartilage tissue the shape of a human hear, along with a conductive polymer with infused silver nano-particles. The end result? A bionic ear that should look and feel just like an ordinary ear, but has increased radio frequency reception. It is not far-fetched to say that Mannoor and McAlpine have printed the first biological ear that could also double as a radio receiver.

Mannoor, McAlpine and team's 3D-printed bionic ear, with enhanced radio reception capabilities. Originally from paper "3D Printed Bionic Ears"
Mannoor, McAlpine and team’s 3D-printed bionic ear, with enhanced radio reception capabilities.
Originally from paper “3D Printed Bionic Ears

Where else may we see such a combination between the biological and the synthetic? This is a fascinating thought experiment, that could help us generate a few forecasts about the future. If I had to guess, I would venture a few combinations for the next twenty years –

  • Radio-conductive bones: have you come for a hip replacement, and also happen to have a pacemaker or some other implant? The researchers will supply you with a hip-bone printed specifically for you, which will also contain conductive elements that will aid radio waves go deeper into the body, so that the implants can receive energy more easily from the outside by radio waves or induction of some kind.
  • Drug delivering tattoos: this item is not 3-D printed, but it’s still an intriguing combination of a few different concepts. Tattoos are essentially the result of an injection of nano- and micro-particles under the skin. Why not use specific particles for added purposes? You can create beautiful tattoos of dragons and princesses and butterflies that can also deliver medicine and insulin to the bloodstream, or even deliver adrenaline when pressed or when experiencing a certain electrical field that makes the particles release their load. Now here’s a tattoo that army generals are going to wish their soldiers had!
  • Exquisite fingernails: the most modern 3-D printers come with a camera and A.I. built-in, so that they can print straight on existing items that the user places in the printer. Why don’t we make a 3-D printer that can print directly on fingernails with certain kinds of materials? The fingernails of the future – which will be printed anew every day – might contain tiny batteries that will power smartphones by touch, or microphones that could record everything that happens around the user.
3D printed fingernails by TheLaserGirls. Offered for sale on Shapeways.
3D printed fingernails by TheLaserGirls. Offered for sale on Shapeways.

These are obviously just three rudimentary ideas, but they serve to show what we could gain by leaving behind the idea that new manufacturing technologies should adhere to the “old and proven”, and advance ahead to novel utilities.

In the end, the future is never just “same old same old”, but is all about shedding off the customs of the past and creating new ones. And so, if I had to guess, I would wager that such a unification of concepts into new and bizarre devices would give us a much more accurate view of the future than the one we gain in the present by showing how 3-D printers can build yet another house and another human organ.

What are your ideas for future combinations of biological and synthetic components? Write them down in the comments section!

Gun Control for Mass-Shootings Soon to be Useless

Today, a 26 years old gunman opened fire at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College, killing at least ten people and injuring seven others. President Obama, a longtime opponent of the gun industry, immediately responded by issuing a fierce speech promoting gun regulation. While I do support a certain amount of gun regulation, it seems to me that Obama is still trying to lock the barn’s doors, long after the horses have escaped. Why am I saying that? Because even today, any person with a spare $1,000 in their bank account, would be able to print a gun for themselves.

You’ve probably heard before about 3D-printing. If you haven’t, you must’ve been hiding in a very deep cave with no WI-FI. The most simple and cheapest 3D-printers basically consist of a robotic arm that injects thin layers of plastic one on top of the other, according to a schematic that you can download from the internet. In that way, any user can print famous historical statues, spare parts for your dish washer, or a functional gun.

How easy is it to use a 3D-printer to print a gun? Much easier than it should be. When I was in Israel, I used a 3D-printer that cost approximately $1,500, in an effort to print a gun. I searched for the schematics that the Defense Distributed group devised and uploaded to the internet, and downloaded the files in less than two minutes from Pirate Bay. The printing itself took some time, and it took me some effort to stitch all the parts together, but in less than 48 hours I held in my hands a functional ghost gun of my own.

A 3D-printed gun. Credit goes to Kamenev.
A 3D-printed gun. Credit for this image and the upper one goes to Kamenev.

Why is it called a ghost gun? Because this gun is untraceable: it’s not registered anywhere, and it has no serial number. As far as the government knows, this gun does not even exist. And I could print as many guns as I wanted, with no one being the wiser. Heck, I could stockpile them in my house for emergencies, or give them out to militias and rebel groups.

The only problem is that the printed gun I downloaded is near useless. It has a recorded tendency to explode in your hands, and is not accurate at distances of more than two meters. Obviously, it is not a fully automatic or even a semiautomatic firearm. In short, I could just as well use a metal tube with gun powder at one end, and a stone stuck at the other. So yeah, it was a pretty lousy gun, back in 2013.

But now we’re getting near the end of 2015, and things have been changing rapidly.

Consider that the original schematics for the 3D-printed gun have been downloaded more than 100,000 times in just a few days after its release to the public. Since it is open source, everyone and anyone could make changes to the schematics, leading to a wide variety of daughter-schematics, that some of them are improved versions of the first clunky gun. Combine that with the elevated capabilities of today’s printers, and the many improvements that lie in store for us, and you’ll realize that in five years from now, gun control at sales venues will be largely useless, since people will be able to print sophisticated firearms in their households.

Disarming the Future

Does that mean we should cut short any efforts for gun control in the present? Absolutely not. America is suffering from an epidemic of mass-shootings, partly because anyone can get himself or herself a deadly weapon with minimal background checks. At the same time, however, we should keep an eye out for technologies that disrupt the current gun industry, and which bring the power to manufacture firearms to the layperson.

How do we deal with such a future – which is probably a lot closer to becoming the present than most people suspect?

Here’s one answer for you: it turns out that the Oregon shooter has left a message on a social media forum this morning, warning some people not to come to school tomorrow. I’m not sure this message is the real deal, but we do know that people who commit mass-shootings leave behind evidence of their intentions in the virtual world.

Consider the following, just as anecdotes –

  • Eliot Rodger killed seven people in a mass-shooting in California. His Youtube videos pretty much state in advance what he was going to do.
  • Terence Tyler, an ex-marine who was suffering from depression, killed two of his co-workers and himself in a supermarket. Sometime before the incident he posted “Is it normal to want to kill your all your co-workers?” on Twitter twice.
  • Jared Loughner killed six people and wounded fourteen. Diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, he wrote “Please don’t be mad at me” in Myspace, and took photos of himself with his trusty rifle in the morning of the shooting.

These are obviously just anecdotes, but they serve to highlight the point: everyone, even mass-killers, want to be noticed, to deliver their message to the public, or to share their intimate thoughts and anguish. Their musings, writings and interactions can all be found in the virtual world, where they are recorded for eternity – and can be analyzed in advance by sophisticated algorithms that can detect potential walking disasters.

While this sentence is rapidly becoming cliché, I must say it again: “This is NOT science fiction”. Facebook is already running algorithms over every chat, and is looking for certain dangerous phrases or keywords that could indicate a criminal intent. If it discovers potential criminals, Facebook alerts the authorities. Similarly, Google is scanning images sent via Gmail to identify pedophiles.

Obviously, identifying individuals that answer to the right (or very wrong) combination of declarations, status in life and other parameters could be a complicated task, but we’re starting at it today – and in the long run, it will prove to be more effective than any gun control regulation we can pass.

And so, here’s my forecast for the day: ten years from now, the president of the United States will stand in front of the camera, and explain that he needs the public’s support in order to pass laws that will enable governmental algorithms to go automatically and constantly over everyone’s information online – and identify the criminals in advance.

The alternative is that this future president won’t even ask for permission – and that should frighten us all so much more.

Tattoos, replacement limbs and body modifications – oh my!

Maggie had never worn shorts around her parents. She had a secret she never wanted them to find out about: under her clothes, her body is covered in secret tattoos. The tattoos range in size and shape, from a tiny cross-shaped drawing on her hip, to a large one covering her entire side, depicting a colorful heart with the words MOM and DAD etched above it.

Many people would view Maggie’s body and skin as beautiful, but her parents are conservative Christian folks. Maggie believes they consider tattooed people as people “…who probably dabble in drugs”. Nonetheless, when she decided to reveal her painted body to her parents, she found out to her great surprise that they accepted her, and that they had no problem with her tattoos.

When Norms Change

As Maggie’s story demonstrates, the public acceptance of tattoos in America has undergone a sharp change over the past fifteen years. In 1936, Life magazine assessed that only 6% of Americans had a tattoo. Today, the total percentage of American individuals who have at least one tattoo has more than doubled itself to 14%, and of all American adults aged 26 – 40, a whopping 40% are tattooed. That’s basically almost half of all the population at that age category.

Why are tattoos gaining in popularity all of a sudden? Nobody really knows. Some academics, like Anne Velliquette, believe that people use tattoos to adhere to a certain aspect of themselves that exists in the moment. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Vellinquette describes our current society as chaotic and fragmented, leading people to look for anchors to feelings and states of mind that will never go away.

Whether the explanation is right or wrong, the acceptance of tattoos in society demonstrates how quickly the horrors of the previous generation can become the norms of the present one. So here’s an interesting and entertaining question for us to consider: what body modifications that we view with horror today, will our children consider to be absolutely normal, and possibly even necessary for the expression of the self?

The list of possible body modifications can be quite large. It includes tattoos, ear stretching, horn implants, changing iris color, changing the color of your skin, and even implanting magnets under your skin, and hanging electric appliances on them. If you feel sure that one of these (or another which I haven’t mentioned) is going to become widespread in the future, feel free to say so in the comment section. In the meantime, I’d like to highlight just one category of body modification that has never been applied to a healthy human body so far – but may become a reality within the next few decades.

Replacement Limbs

You walk into a body modification parlor. All around you are samples of the art that you can graft onto your body: from colorful tattoos, to small horns to be implanted on the forehead. After spending a long time staring at the possibilities in front of you, you finally select one.

“I’ll take this robotic hand.” You tell the modification artist. He explains to you, slowly and carefully, that to graft the hand onto your arm he would have to remove your biological, original hand, fingers and all. You just shrug. The biological hand you currently possess has way too many tattoos on it anyway, of past memories you’d rather forget.

This scenario is obviously quite detached from the present, in which every kind of surgical intrusion into the body is considered taboo without a good medical reason. However, the taboo is there for a very specific reason: to protect people from undergoing medical procedures that could expose them to infections. According to the CDC, even if you’re being treated in the most sterilized surgery rooms in the world there’s still a chance of somewhere between 1.9% and 3% for infection.

Let us assume that medicine is about to experience exponential development in the next few decades – an assumption that is very hard to dispute, but which is a topic for another blog post. Such exponential development would result in a society in which infections are a thing of the past, body parts are being grown in vats or printed fully, and robotic prostheses can be implanted onto the body and complement it just as well as our biological limbs do.

There are hints that this future is starting to become true. The most sophisticated prostheses currently are probably made and programmed by Hugh Herr – a professor in the MIT Media Lab, who is also a double amputee by himself. He has designed his own bionic legs and feet, and changes them as though they were fashion items, in order to become taller, shorter or more fitting for mountain hiking. His bionic legs are sophisticated enough that people can actually use them to dance, as though they were real limbs.


Prostheses that are also forms of art start making their way into the public awareness. Models with bionic arms walk the runways at top fashion events, and they no longer bother using a look-alike prosthesis. Instead, they opt for prostheses that – like tattoos – have a deeper meaning. The Alternative Limb Project actually produces prostheses that look intentionally bizarre and extraordinary. And while such prostheses must be extremely expensive, the Makers Movement is starting to 3-D print fully functional prostheses for a few hundred dollars. Some of those ‘house-made’ prostheses will doubtless be drab and grey; others will be as individual as can be, and will come in the shape of robot arms, animal arms, arms with drawings (tattoos?) on them, and many other variations.

An alternative prosthetic arm, that includes snakes going through it. According to the wearer, Jo-Jo Cranfield, “My alternative limb is so different to any other prosthetic limb I have ever had. I wear it with pride. I’ve never seen a two armed person with snakes crawling into their skin, and even if I did I don’t think it would be so comfy! My alternative arm makes me feel powerful, different and sexy!” Credits: the arm was created by Sophie de Oliveira Barata and fitted at Queen Mary’s Hospital The make-up artist for the picture was Gemma Fee, and the photograph was taken by Rosemary Williams. The picture (and many others like it) can be found at the Alternative Limb Project site.

Considering the need for prostheses in society, and the advances in technology, it is clear that we are going to see many more amputees going around with robotic or static limbs that will better reflect their character, occupations and needs. Will we ever reach a state when healthy people actually ask to remove their limbs and replace them with alternative ones? That will take some time, but ultimately I cannot see a good reason against such a social development.

The Impassible Barrier?

At this point you may be asking yourselves: where do we stop? Are there kinds of bodily modifications that society will shun forever? The fact of the matter is that “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, and the beholder is part of a larger social construct than herself. Tribal societies throughout the world have come to the conclusion that stretched ears are beautiful, or that scrotal implants (be careful: after I Googled that one up, I got some really weird ads in my browser) look sexy. Western society seems to be going with tattoos right now, and with unnecessary enlargement of women’s mammary glands by way of breast implant. So yeah, we are definitely up for altering and modifying the human body. The only question is how, and when.

Considering all of the above, who is to say that stretched ears, or alternative prostheses, won’t become part of our future? Bodily modification has been part of all societies so far, and it is only expanding. The current generation will always be disgusted, repulsed and visibly shaken by novel changes to the human body. And the next generation? They’ll consider those changes perfectly normal.

One thing for certain: the future of the human body is going to be much more colorful, vibrant and heterogeneous than it is today.

Quite honestly, I cannot wait for the future to come.