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.

 

The Real Reason We’re Losing our Privacy

“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.

 

Can Bots Replace Human Teachers?

“You want to order another pizza?” I suggested.

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’s Jill.” He said. “Jill Watson. It’s based on the same Watson AI engine that IBM developed a few years ago. That Watson can already have debates about current issues, conduct scientific literature reviews, and even provide legal consultation. And now it can even assist students just like a human teaching assistant, and they don’t even note the difference!”

“How can that be?” I tried to understand.

“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…”

“There are already companies that provide psychological services on the internet, using text messages.” He said. “Turns out it’s really going well for the patients. You want to bet bots can do this too in a few years? So get ready to wave bye-bye at many of the human psychologists out there.”

“Or maybe you could become an author and write novels…” I tried to continue.

“An AI managed to write a novel this year, and it passed the first round in a Japanese literary competition.” He stated.

“Or write political speeches…”

“Computers do that too.”

“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.”

I nodded.

“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 Flying Taxis Are On Their Way

A while ago I’ve written in this blog about flying cars, and how we should start seeing them in our sky en masse towards 2035. It’s always nice to check on such forecasts and see how they’re progressing along and are reinforced by recent events. So here’s an update, composed of two recent news from April: one of them is basically an eye candy, while the other could be a serious indicator that flying cars are afoot (pun fully intended).

 

The Eye Candy

Let’s open with the pretty and shiny stuff. It turns out an aerial innovator has just flown his own invention, the Flyboard Air, a whooping distance of 2,252 meters. He basically smashed through the old record of 275 meters, going at a height of 30 meters above water, at a top speed of around 70 km/h. That’s an impressive achievement!

Unfortunately, it doesn’t mean anything for a future of flying cars.

The main reason for my lack of enthusiasm is that the hoverboard is powered by jet fuel – A1 kerosene carried on the user’s back. As long as flying cars are powered by conventional fossil fuels, they won’t find their way into common use. Flying simply takes too much energy, and fossil fuels are too expensive and harmful to the environment to be used to power such wasteful activity. The only flying cars that have a chance to succeed are ones that operate on electricity, and that’s only if we assume that electricity is about to become abundant due to the exponential rise in solar energy use.

So this is probably just another pretty invention, but when such inventions appear on the market one after the other, one starts to see a trend. You can’t ignore the fact that aerial drones capable of carrying a human passenger begin to appear more and more on the news. Will all these innovations lead to an actual flying taxi service? Only if the two conditions I specified in the original post about flying cars come true: they need to be electric, and they need to be autonomous so that you don’t have an expensive (and prone to mistakes) human pilot.

 

The Flying Taxis of the Future

In the last two months, exciting things have happened for e-volo: the manufacturer of the world’s first certified Multicopter (i.e. a helicopter with multiple rotors).

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First manned flight with Alexander Zosel. Source: ASM International

The Multicopter has received a permit to fly from the German authorities in February 2016. The certified Multicopter’s first manned flight took place at the end of March, and ended with absolutely no issues. The pilot controlled the vehicle easily with a single joystick, and the Multicopter was stable and autonomous enough to retain its position automatically even when the pilot released his hand from the joystick.

 

The vehicle can reach a speed of up to 100 km/h, with 18 rotors powered by nine independent batteries, and a 450 kg take-off weight. The large number of rotors and batteries means that even if one of them fails, the Multicopter can still stay high in the air. Since the Multicopter relies on electric motors, it is one of the top candidates in the race to become the world’s first air taxi.

Which is exactly what e-volo, the company behind the Multicopter, is trying to do.

According to ASM International, e-volo is looking to create a new market of air taxi services. In the short term, they plan to use the personal vehicles on certain predetermined routes, where there will be no chance for collision. In the medium term, however, they are already thinking about providing the vehicles with autonomous capabilities, so that they will be able to go any way the passenger chooses. The passenger will pick the destination, and the AI will make sure that the air taxi brings him there safely.

 

Conclusions

There are encouraging indicators that air taxi services will indeed become reality by 2035, but the obstacles are still out there. We still need to develop more reliable personal aircrafts with improved autonomous functions. Also, electric flying vehicles will still require an abundance of energy for mass-scale use, and such energy will have to come from an abundant source: the Sun. That means we’ll have to keep an eye for developments in solar energy harvesting as well. Luckily, solar energy is moving forward at an exponential rate.

So, if everything comes together just right, I still stand by my original forecast: flying taxis by 2035 it is!

Futuronymity: Keeping Our Privacy from Our Grandchildren

History is a story that will never be told fully. So much of the information is lost to the past. So much – almost all – the information is gone, or has never been recorded. We can barely make sense of the present, in which information about the events and the people behind them keeps being released every day. What chance do we have, then, at fully deciphering the complex stories underlying history – the betrayals, the upheavals, the personal stories of the individuals who shaped events?

The answer has to be that we have no way of reaching any certainty about the stories we tell ourselves about our past.

But we do make some efforts.

Medical doctors and historians are trying to make sense of biographies and ancient skeletons, in order to retro-diagnose ancient kings and queens. Occasionally they identify diseases and disorders that were unknown and misunderstood at the time those individuals actually lived. Mummies of ancient pharaohs are x-rayed, and we suddenly have a better understanding of a story that unfolded more than two thousand years ago and realize that the pharaoh Ramesses II suffered from a degenerative spinal condition.

Similarly, geneticists and microbiologists use DNA evidence to end mysteries and find conclusive endings to some historical stories. DNA evidence from bones has allowed us to put to rest the rumors, for example, that the two children of Czar Nicholas II survived the 1918 revolution in Russia.

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The Russian czar Nicholas II with his family. DNA evidence now shows conclusively that Anastasia, the youngest daughter, did not survive the mass execution of the family in 1918. Source: Wikipedia

The above examples have something in common: they all require hard work by human experts. The experts need to pore over ancient histories, analyze the data and the evidence, and at the same time have good understanding of the science and medicine of the present.

What happens, though, when we let a computer perform similar analyses in an automatic fashion? How many stories about the past could we resolve then?

We are rapidly making progress towards such achievements. Recently, three authors from Waseda University in Japan have published a new paper showing they can use a computer to colorize old black & white photos. They rely on convolutional neural networks, which are in effect a simulation of certain structures of a biological brain. Convolutional neural networks have a strong capacity for learning, and can thus be trained to perform certain cognitive tasks – like adding color to old photos. While computerized coloring has been developed and used before, the authors’ methodology seems to achieve better results than others before them, with 92.6 percent of the colored images looking natural to users.

Colorized pictures from the past
Colorized black & white pictures from the past. AI engine was used to add color – essentially new information – to these hints from our past. Source: paper by Iizuka, Simo-Serra and Ishikawa

This is essentially an expert system, an AI engine operating in a way similar to that of the human brain. It studies thousands of thousands of pictures, and then applies its insights to new pictures. Moreover, the system can now go autonomously over every picture ever taken, and add a new layer of information to it.

There are boundaries to the method, of course. Even the best AI engine can miss its mark in cases where the existing information is not sufficient to produce a reliable insight. In the examples below you can see that the AI colored the tent orange rather than blue, since it had no way of knowing what color it was originally.

But will that stay the case forever?

Colorized black & white picture - with wrong color
Colorized black & white picture that was colored incorrectly since no information existed about the tent from other sources. Source: paper by Iizuka, Simo-Serra and Ishikawa

As I previously discussed in the Failures of Foresight series of posts on this blog, the Failure of Segregation is making it difficult for us to forecast the future because we’re trying to look at each trend and each piece of evidence on its own. Let’s try to work past that failure, and instead consider what happens when an AI expert coloring system is combined with an AI system that recognizes items like tents and associates them with certain brands, and can even analyze how many tents of each color of that brand were sold on every year – or at least what was the most favorite tent color for people at that time.

When you combine all of those AI engines together, you get a machine that can tell you a highly nuanced story about the past. Much of it is guesswork, obviously, but those are quite educated guesses.

 

The Artificial Exploration of the Past

In the near future, we’ll use many different kinds of AI expert systems to explore the stories of the past. Some artificial historians will discover cycles in history – princes assassinating their kingly fathers, for example – that have a higher probability to occur, and will analyze ancient stories accordingly. Other artificial historians will compare genealogies, while yet others will analyze ancient scriptures and identify different patterns of writing. In fact, such an algorithm had already been applied to the Bible, revealing that the Torah has been written by several different authors and distinguishing between them.

The artificial exploration of the past is going to add many fascinating details to stories which we’ve long thought were settled and concluded. But it also raises an important question: when our children and children’s children look back at our present and try to derive meaning from it – what will they find out? How complete will their stories of their past and our present be?

I suspect the stories – the actual knowledge and understanding of the order between events – will be even more complete than what we who dwell in the present know about.

 

Past-Future

In the not-so-far-away future, machines will be used to analyze all of the world’s data from the early 21st century. This is a massive amount of data: 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created daily, which would fill ten million blu-ray discs altogether. It is astounding to realize that 90 percent of the world’s data today has been created just in the last two years. Human researchers would not be able to make much sense of it, but advanced AI algorithms – a super-intelligence, in some ways – could actually have the tools to crosslink many different pieces of information together to obtain the story of the present: to find out what movies families had watched on a specific day, in which hotel the President of the United States stayed during a recent visit to France and what snacks he ordered on room service, and many other paraphernalia.

Are those details useless? They may seem so to our limited human comprehension, but they will form the basis for the AI engines to better understand the past, and produce better stories of it. When the people of the future will try to understand how World War 3 broke out, their AI historians may actually conclude that it all began with a presidential case of indigestion which happened at a certain French hotel, and which annoyed the American president so much that it had prevented him from making the most rational choices in the next couple of days. An hypothetical scenario, obviously.

 

Futuronymity – Maintaining Our Privacy from the Future

We are gaining improved tools to explore the past with, and to derive insights and new knowledge even where information is missing. These tools will be improved further in the future, and will be used to analyze our current times – the early 21st century – as well.

What does it mean for you and me?

Most importantly, we should realize that almost every action you take in the virtual world will be scrutinized by your children’s children, probably after your death. Your actions in the virtual world are recorded all the time, and if the documentation survives into the future, then the next generations are going to know all about your browsing habits in the middle of the night. Yes, even though you turned incognito mode on.

This means we need to develop a new concept for privacy: futuronymity (derived from Future and Anonymity) which will obscure our lives from the eyes of future generations. Politicians are always concerned about this kind of privacy, since they know their critical decisions will be considered and analyzed by historians. In the future, common people will find themselves under similar scrutiny by their progenies. If our current hobby is going to psychologists to understand just how our parents ruined us, then the hobby of our grandchildren will be to go to the computer to find out the same.

Do we even have the right to futuronymity? Should we hide from next generations the truth about how their future was formed, and who was responsible?

That question is no longer in the hands of individuals. In the past, private people could’ve just incinerated their hard drives with all the information on them. Today, most of the information is in the hands of corporations and governments. If we want them to dispose of it – if we want any say in which parts they’ll preserve and which will be deleted – we should speak up now.

 

 

The Activated World: from Solar Power to Food

 

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

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

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Source: GTM Research

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

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

 

The Activation of Everything

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Activation of Cars

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

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

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

 

The Activation of Farmlands

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

 

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Anna Freund run the Open View Farm. Source: VPR

The Activation of the Air

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

 

The Activation of Food

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

 

When Reality Changes More Quickly than Science Fiction

Brandon Sanderson is one of my favorite fantasy and science fiction authors. He is producing new books in an incredible pace, and his writing quality does not seem to suffer for it. The first book in his recent sci-fi trilogy, Steelheart from The Reckoners series, was published in September 2013. Calamity, the third and last book in the same series was published in February 2016. So just three years passed between the first and the last book in the series.

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The Reckoners trilogy. Source: Brittany Zelkovich

The books themselves describe a post-apocalyptic future, around ten years away from us. In the first book, the hero lives in the most technologically advanced cities in the world, with electricity, smartphones, and sophisticated technology at his disposal. Sanderson describes sophisticated weapons used by the police forces in the city, including laser weapons and even mechanized war suits. By the third book, our hero reaches another technologically-advanced outpost of humanity, and suddenly is surrounded by weaponized aerial drones.

You may say that the first city chose not to use aerial drones, but that explanation is a bit sketchy, as anyone who has read the books can testify. Instead, it seems to me that in the three years that passed since the original book was published, aerial drones finally made a large enough impact on the general mindset, that Sanderson could no longer ignore them in his vision of a future. He realized that his readers would look askance at any vision of the future that does not include mention of aerial drones of some kind. In effect, the drones have become part of the way we think about the future. We find it difficult to imagine a future without them.

Usually, our visions of the future change relatively slowly and gradually. In the case of the drones, it seems that within three years they’ve moved from an obscure technological item to a common myth the public shares about the future.

Science fiction, then, can show us what people in the present expect the future to look like. And therein lies its downfall.

 

Where Science Fiction Fails

Science fiction can be used to help us explore alternative futures, and it does so admirably well. However, best-selling books must reach a wide audience, and to resonate with many on several different levels. In order to do that, the most popular science fiction authors cannot stray too far from our current notions. They cannot let go of our natural intuitions and core feelings: love, hate, the appreciation we have for individuality, and many others. They can explore themes in which the anti-hero, or The Enemy, defy these commonalities that we share in the present. However, if the author wants to write a really popular book, he or she will take care not to forego completely the reality we know.

Of course, many science fiction book are meant for ‘in-house’ audience: for the hard-core sci-fi audience who is eager to think beyond the box of the present. Alastair Reynolds in his Revelation Space series, for example, succeeds in writing sci-fi literature for this audience exactly. He’s writing stories that in many aspects transcend notions of individuality, love and humanity. And he’s paying the price for this transgression as his books (to the best of my knowledge) have yet to appear on the New York Times Best Seller list. Why? As one disgruntled reviewer writes about Reynolds’ book Chasm City

“I prefer reading a story where I root for the protagonist. After about a third of the way in, I was pretty disturbed by the behavior of pretty much everyone.”

Chasm_City_cover_(Amazon).jpg

Highly popular sci-fi literature is thus forced to never let go completely of present paradigms, which sadly limits its use as a tool to developing and analyzing far-away futures. On the other hand, it’s conceivable that an annual analysis of the most popular sci-fi books could provide us with an understanding of the public state-of-mind regarding the future.

Of course, there are much easier ways to determine how much hype certain technologies receive in the public sphere. It’s likely that by running data mining algorithms on the content of technological blogs and websites, we would reach better conclusions. Such algorithms can also be run practically every hours of every day. So yeah, that’s probably a more efficient route to figuring out how the public views the future of technology.

But if you’re looking for an excuse to read science fiction novels for a purely academic reason, just remember you found it in this blog post.

 

 

The Citizens Who Solve the World’s Problems

It’s always nice when news items that support each other and indicate a certain future appear in the same week, especially when each of them is exciting on its own. Last week we’ve seen this happening with three different news items:

  1. A scientific finding that a single bacteria type grows 60 percent better in space than on Earth. The germs used in the experiment were collected by the public;
  2. A new Kickstarter project for the creation of a DNA laboratory for everyone;
  3. A new project proposed on a crowdfunding platform, requesting public support for developing the means for rapid detection of Zika virus without the need for a laboratory in Brazil.

Let’s go over each to see how they all come together.

 

Space Microbes

Between the years 2012 and 2014, citizens throughout the United States collected bacteria samples from their environment using cotton swabs, and mailed them to the University of California Davis. Out of the large number of samples that arrived at the lab, 48 strains of germs were isolated and selected to be sent to space, on board the International Space Station (ISS). Most of the bacterial strains behaved similarly on Earth and in space. One strain, however, surpassed all expectations and proliferated rapidly, growing 60% better in space.

Does this mean that the bacteria, going by the name of Bacillus safensis, is better adapted for life in space? I would stay wary of such assertions. We don’t know yet whether the improved growth was a result of the micro-gravity conditions in the space stations, or of some other unquantified factor. It is entirely possible that the levels of humidity, oxygen concentrations, or the quality of the medium were somehow altered or changed on the space station. The result, in short, could easily be a fluke rather than an indicator that some bacteria can grow better in micro-gravity. We’ll have to wait for further evidence before reaching a final conclusion on this issue.

The most exciting thing for me here is that the bacteria in question was collected by the public, in a demonstration of the power of citizen science. People from all over America took part in the project, and as a result of their combined effort, the scientists ended up with a large number of strains, some of which they probably would not have thought to use in the first place. This is one of the main strengths of citizen science: providing many samples of research material for the scientists to analyze and experiment on.

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Study author Darlene Cavalier swabs the crack of the Liberty Bell to collect bacterial samples. Credit: CC by 4.0

DNA Labs for Everyone

Have you always wanted to check your own DNA? To find out whether you have a certain variant of a gene, or identify the animals whose meat appears in your hamburger? Well, now you can do that easily by ordering the Bento Lab: “A DNA laboratory for everyone”.

The laptop-sized lab includes a centrifuge for the extraction of DNA from biological samples, a PCR thermocycler to target specific DNA sequences, and an illuminated gel unit to visualize the results and ascertain whether or not the sample contains the DNA sequence you were looking after. All that, for the price of less than one thousand dollars. This is ridiculously cheap, particularly when you understand that similar lab equipment easily have cost tens of thousands of dollars just twenty years ago.

The Bento Lab - Citizen Science for DNA analysis
The Bento Lab

The Kickstarter project has already gained support from 395 backers, pledging nearly $150,000 to the cause, and surpassing the goal by 250% in just ten days. That’s an amazing progress for a project that’s really only suitable for hard-core makers and bio-hackers.

Why is the Bento Lab so exciting? Because it gives power to the people. The current model is very limited, but the next versions of mobile labs will contain better equipment and provide better capabilities to the bio-hackers who purchase them. You don’t have to be a futurist to say that – already there are other projects attempting to bring CRISPR technology for highly-efficient gene editing to the masses.

This, then, is a great example for the ways citizen science is going to keep on evolving: people won’t just collect bacterial samples in the streets and send them to distinguished scientists. Instead, private people – joes shmoes like you and me – will be able to experiment on these bacteria in their homes and garages.

Should you be scared? Obviously, yeah. The power to re-engineer biology is nothing to scoff at, and we will need to think up ways to regulate public bio-engineering. However, the public could also use this kind of power to contribute to scientific projects around the world, to conduct DNA sequencing of one’s own genetics, and eventually to create biological therapeutics in one’s own house.

Which brings us to the last news item I wanted to write about in this post: citizens developing means for rapid detection of Zika virus.

 

Entrepreneurs against Viruses

The Zika virus has begun spreading rapidly in Brazil, with devastating consequences. The virus can spread from pregnant women to their fetuses, and has been linked to a serious birth defect of the brain called microcephaly in babies. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the virus likely will continue to spread to new areas.

Despite the fact that the World Health Organization declared Zika virus a public health emergency merely two months ago, citizen scientists are already working diligently to develop new ways to detect the virus. A UK-IL-BR team has sprung up, with young biotech entrepreneurs leading and doing research to create a better system for rapid detection of the virus in human beings and mosquitos. The group is now requesting the public to chip in and back the project, and has already gathered nearly $6,000.

This initiative is a result of the movement that brings the capabilities to do science to everyone. When every citizen armed with an undergraduate degree in biology can do science in his or her home, we shouldn’t be surprised when new methods for the detection of viruses crop up in distant places around the world. We’re basically decentralizing the scientific community – and as a result can have many more people working on strange and wonderful ideas, some of which will actually bear fruit to the benefit of all.

 

Conclusions

As scientific devices and appliances become cheaper and make their way to the hands of individuals around the world, citizen science becomes more popular and provides ever greater impact. Today we see the uprising of the citizen scientists – those that are not supported by universities or research centers, but instead start conducting experiments in their homes.

In a decade from now, we will see at least one therapeutic being manufactured by citizen scientists in an easy and cheap manner that will undermine the expensive prices demanded by pharma companies for their drugs. Heck, even kids would be able to deliver that kind of science in garage labs. Less than a decade later, we will witness citizen scientists actually conducting medical research on their own, by running analysis over medical records of hundreds – maybe millions – of people to uncover how new or existing therapeutics can be used to treat certain medical conditions. Many of these research projects will not be supported by the government or big pharma with the intent to make money, but will instead be supported by the public itself on crowdfunding sites.

Of course, for all that to happen we need to support citizen scientists today. So go ahead – contribute to the campaign against Zika, or purchase a Bento Lab for your kitchen, or find a citizen science projects or games for kids you can join in SciStarter. We all can take part in improving science, together.

 

Visit other posts in my blog about crowdfunding projects, such as Robit: A new contender in the field of house robots; or read my analysis Why crowdfunding scams are good for society.

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

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

And then things got weird.

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

tesla tweet 2

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

 

A Decline in Private Ownership?

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

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

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

20090717-t3722tnq7c2dqs2sk459g7mgdn.jpg
Image originally from Engadget.

 

The Legal Side

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

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

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

 

Conclusions

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

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

 

Science Just Wants To Be Free

This article was originally published in the Huffington Post

 

For a long time now, scientists were held in thrall by publishers. They worked voluntarily – without getting any pay – as editors and reviewers for the publishers, and they allowed their research to be published in scientific journals without receiving anything out of it. No wonder that scientific publishing had been considered a lucrative business.

Well, that’s no longer the case. Now, scientific publishers are struggling to maintain their stranglehold over scientists. If they succeed, science and the pace of progress will take a hit. Luckily, the entire scientific landscape is turning on them – but a little support from the public will go a long way in ensuring the eventual downfall of an institute that is no longer relevant or useful for society.

To understand why things are changing, we need to look back in history to 1665, when the British Royal Society began publishing research results in a journal form called Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Since the number of pages available in each issue was limited, the editors could only pick the most interesting and credible papers to appear in the journal. As a result, scientists from all over Britain fought to have their research published in the journal, and any scientist whose research was published in an issue gained immediate recognition throughout Britain. Scientists were even willing to become editors for scientific journals, since that was a position that demanded request – and provided them power to push their views and agendas in science.

Thus was the deal struck between scientific publishers and scientists: the journals provided a platform for the scientists to present their research, and the scientists fought tooth and nail to have their papers accepted into the journals – often paying from their pockets for it to happen. The journals publishers then had full copyrights over the papers, to ensure that the same paper would not be published in a competing journal.

That, at least, was the old way for publishing scientific research. The reason that the journal publishers were so successful in the 20th century was that they acted as aggregators and selectors of knowledge. They employed the best scientists in the world as editors (almost always for free) to select the best papers, and they aggregated together all the necessary publishing processes in one place.

And then the internet appeared, along with a host of other automated processes that let every scientist publish and disseminate a new paper with minimal effort. Suddenly, publishing a new scientific paper and making the scientific community aware of it, could have a radical new price tag: it could be completely free.

Free Science

Let’s go through the process of publishing a research paper, and see how easy and effortless it became:

  1. The scientist sends the paper to the journal: Can now be conducted easily through the internet, with no cost for mail delivery.
  2. The paper is rerouted to the editor dealing with the paper’s topic: This is done automatically, since the authors specify certain keywords which make sure the right editor gets the paper automatically to her e-mail. Since the editor is actually a scientist volunteering to do the work for the publisher, there’s no cost attached anyway. Neither is there need for a human secretary to spend time and effort on cataloguing papers and sending them to editors manually.
  3. The editor sends the paper to specific scientific reviewers: All the reviewers are working for free, so the publishers don’t spend any money there either.

Let’s assume that the paper was confirmed, and is going to appear in the journal. Now the publisher must:

  1. Paginate, proofread, typeset, and ensure the use of proper graphics in the paper: These tasks are now performed nearly automatically using word processing programs, and are usually handled by the original authors of the paper.
  2. Print and distribute the journal: This is the only step that costs actual money by necessity, since it is performed in the physical world, and atoms are notoriously more expensive than bits. But do we even need this step anymore? I have been walking around in the corridors of the academy for more than ten years, and I’ve yet to see a scientist with his nose buried in a printed journal. Instead, scientists are reading the papers on their computer screens, or printing them in their offices. The mass-printed version is almost completely redundant. There is simply no need for it.

In conclusion, it’s easy to see that while the publishers served an important role in science a few decades ago, they are just not necessary today. The above steps can easily be conducted by community-managed sites like Arxive, and even the selection process of high quality papers can be performed today by the scientist themselves, in forums like Faculty of 1000.

The publishers have become redundant. But worse than that: they are damaging the progress of science and technology.

The New Producers of Knowledge

In a few years from now, the producers of knowledge will not be human scientists but computer programs and algorithms. Programs like IBM’s Watson will skim through hundreds of thousands of research papers and derive new meanings and insights from them. This would be an entirely new field of scientific research: retrospective research.

Computerized retrospective research is happening right now. A new model in developmental biology, for example, was discovered by an artificial intelligence engine that went over just 16 experiments published in the past. Imagine what would happen when AI algorithms cross and match together thousands papers from different disciplines, and come up with new theories and models that are supported by the research of thousands of scientists from the past!

For that to happen, however, the programs need to be able to go over the vast number of research papers out there, most of which are copyrighted, and held in the hands of the publishers.

You may say this is not a real problem. After all, IBM and other large data companies can easily cover the millions of dollars which the publishers will demand annually for access to the scientific content. What will the academic researchers do, though? Many of them do not enjoy the backing of the big industry, and will not have access to scientific data from the past. Even top academic institutes like Harvard University find themselves hard-pressed to cover the annual costs demanded by the publishers for accessing papers from the past.

Many ventures for using this data are based on the assumption that information is essentially free. We know that Google is wary of uploading scanned books from the last few decades, even if these books are no longer in circulation. Google doesn’t want to be sued by the copyrights holders – and thus is waiting for the copyrights to expire before it uploads the entire book – and lets the public enjoy it for free. So many free projects could be conducted to derive scientific insights from literally millions of research papers from the past. Are we really going to wait for nearly a hundred years before we can use all that knowledge? Knowledge, I should mention, that was gathered by scientists funded by the public – and should thus remain in the hands of the public.

 

What Can We Do?

Scientific publishers are slowly dying, while free publication and open access to papers are becoming the norm. The process of transition, though, is going to take a long time still, and provides no easy and immediate solution for all those millions of research papers from the last century. What can we do about them?

Here’s one proposal. It’s radical, but it highlights one possible way of action: have the government, or an international coalition of governments, purchase the copyrights for all copyrighted scientific papers, and open them to the public. The venture will cost a few billion dollars, true, but it will only have to occur once for the entire scientific publishing field to change its face. It will set to right the ancient wrong of hiding research under paywalls. That wrong was necessary in the past when we needed the publishers, but now there is simply no justification for it. Most importantly, this move will mean that science can accelerate its pace by easily relying on the roots cultivated by past generations of scientists.

If governments don’t do that, the public will. Already we see the rise of websites like Sci-Hub, which provide free (i.e. pirated) access to more than 47 million research papers. Having been persecuted by both the publishers and the government, Sci-Hub has just recently been forced to move to the Darknet, which is the dark and anonymous section of the internet. Scientists who will want to browse through past research results – that were almost entirely paid for by the public – will thus have to move over to the Darknet, which is where weapon smugglers, pedophiles and drug dealers lurk today. That’s a sad turn of events that should make you think. Just be careful not to sell your thoughts to the scholarly publishers, or they may never see the light of day.

 

Dr Roey Tzezana is a senior analyst at Wikistrat, an academic manager of foresight courses at Tel Aviv University, blogger at Curating The Future, the director of the Simpolitix project for political forecasting, and founder of TeleBuddy.