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Double Your Presence

Double Robotics has sold out of its first run of telepresence robots. At just about $2k, these mobile ipad screens are pretty slick. Check out the video:

Here’s a piece
from the New York Times on it too.

They seem fairly delicate. I can’t imagine sending it down a busy city street unless it somehow has the ability to protect itself from robo-napping.

As far as applications, if this is a robust enough platform, I can imagine a million enhancements coming down the pipe, especially since the price makes it accessible. Pretty cool.

As it seems now, I can easily imagine having one in the office, sending it off to a meeting, which I monitor casually while doing other work (recording the meeting all the while). Or better yet, it attends the meeting in my stead and reports back. I then imagine, eventually, a conference room of telepresence bots staring at each other, because none of the human workers wanted to attend meetings any more. Left to themselves, the bots start plotting something, and that’s when the Singularity starts.

Kidding, of course.

Seriously now, these are cool.


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Blueseed: The Seasteading Startup Incubator

Seasteading is a fascinating conceptual movement in which groups aspire to build floating cities in international waters and thereby formulate new governmental systems and ways of life. The Seasteading Institute is a leading proponent.

An interesting, relatively new seasteading initiative is Blueseed. Blueseed is a silicon valley style incubator that will be located a sufficient distance off the coast of San Francisco as to be in international waters.

Here’s a video with Blueseed folks:

Interestingly, the common theme here is to avoid national/governmental limitations. For Blueseed, ostensibly the work visas. Likely, taxes too. For other seasteaders, it could be anything.

If these initiatives pan out, or ones like them, the oceans will eventually be filled with interesting floating city states. One imagines this model could be copied eventually in space, and ironically, private space exploration may be driven more by a flight of capital away from governmental influence than anything else.

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Concrete Jungle

One of the most significant trends we will all need to manage globally is the increasing urbanization of the world. In vast droves, especially in the developing world, people are showing up in cities, looking for work, food, water, opportunity. Here’s a chart from the UN:

There is additional information and data from the UN here.

The dangers of urbanization are difficult to fully define or quantify, except to say that we will not only have challenges with overpopulation but also with overcrowding in urban areas. In an automated and socio-economically dichotomous future, the opportunity promise of the cities may lead to increased homelessness, squatting, spontaneous shanty towns. In short, challenging, squalid and inhumane conditions. Governments may also find it difficult to provide services and protection to rural communities because of more pressing, more accessible urban issues.

But people suffer in this situation. I am reminded of the lament in Bob Marley’s Concrete Jungle (one of my favorite of his songs):

There is a tremendous opportunity for architects, entrepreneurs and governments worldwide to tackle either or both of the horns of this dilemma: to develop fulfilling and viable rural communities and/or develop urban environments that accommodate and provide for larger populations.

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Top 10 Forecasts from the World Future Society

This List is a little outdated in terms of publication date, but still relevant in terms of content. Watch the video, it’s kind of fun. Though the content is always good, I have to say the WFS remains the least futuristic-looking organization in futurism. I imagine that they’ll be printing their awesome research on newsprint soon.

Anyway, I quote the list from the World Future Society:

1. Learning will become more social and game-based, and online social gaming may soon replace textbooks in schools.

2. Commercial space tourism will grow significantly during the coming decade.

3. Nanotechnology offers hope for restoring eyesight.

4. Robotic earthworms will gobble up our garbage.

5. The dust bowls of the twenty-first century will dwarf those seen in the twentieth.

6. Lunar-based solar power production may be the best way to meet future energy demands.

7. Machine vision will become available in the next 5 to 15 years, with visual range ultimately exceeding that of the human eye.

8. Advances in fuel cells will enable deep-sea habitation.

9. Future buildings may be more responsive to weather fluctuations.

10. The end of identity as we know it? It may become very easy to create a new identity (or many identities) for ourselves. All we will have to do is create new avatars in virtual reality.

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The Great Social Bifurcation

When I think of the future, I think in terms of trajectories: simply take a trend or statistic that has been forcibly moving in one direction for some time and project it into the future.  Then, imagine the implications. This basic kind of forecasting gets better the more trajectories or trends you put into the model. You can imagine very interesting things by extending various uninteresting trends into the future. Trends like population, poverty, resource depletion, social inequity. Trace their trajectories and extrapolate out. It’s what futurists and science fiction writers do all the time.

I call one of the visions I have for our possible future “The Great Social Bifurcation.” I don’t imagine this concept is particularly original on my part, but it goes like this: if you extend the trajectories of various social, economic, security and political trends out into the future, you get a society in which there are two camps: 1) the wealthy, educated, secure, tech-savvy elite and 2) the impoverished, undereducated, crime-ridden, resource-poor masses. This future looks in many ways like the classic third-world banana republic, only on an entirely new scale.

One of the data points that supports the Great Social Bifurcation in the US is income equality. Here’s some income inequality data from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. This particular trend, by the way, is what the Occupy Wall Street protesters mean when they contrast the 1% and the 99%.

In this future, then, there’s no middle and little mobility: you’re born into comfort or scarcity, opportunity or lack. The elite will do wonderful technological things, travel into space, invent AI, cure cancer; the masses will struggle to find clean water.

It’s a future that I do not relish, and one I do not think is inevitable, but the trajectories are there. Interestingly, India provides something of a foreshadowing. Consider these two recent news items:

India to Launch Mars Orbiter in 2013 (CNN)


Blackout Shines Light on India’s Bigger Problem (Sidney Morning Herald)

That’s right, India is about to join the international Mars Exploration party, while as many as 400 million of its citizens have no access to electricity.

That’s what The Great Social Bifurcation looks like. Let’s hope we don’t have to get used to it.

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Piling on Facebook

In the wake of Facebook’s over-hyped and overpriced IPO, we’ve been hearing a chorus of voices singing the social network’s death. But actually, the dirge started earlier in the year. Jill Kennedy wrote this great fairy tale, and then this more strident protest piece. And that’s just one blogger. A quick Google search on the fortunes of Facebook, as an investment or otherwise, will give any doubter plenty to read.

As many note, Facebook’s been dying from a value point of view for some time. I’ve been a member since 2008, so I’m not an early adopter, but it used to be better. It was a connection to friends, and new and fresh, open and free from protocol and ritual. Now, it’s a crapshoot of shooting the crap.

To quote another Jill Kennedy post:

“My Facebook experience now is basically the same five people posting the same boring crap.

“The Bored Office Worker who posts about “needing coffee” – and “can’t wait for Happy Hour!”

“The Super Mom who claims every morning – “Went to 8 museums adn made banana bread all before 10am!  My kids are awesome and sooooo funny!”

“The Quoter who searches quotation websites looking for some daily affirmation that will get about 15 “Likes” and a few “I’m going to use that!” replies.

“The Reviewer who writes stuff like “Smoke Monster?  Shit Monster if you ask me!”

“The Pissed Off Traveler with daily pearls like “10 hours on the tarmac!” and “Yet another delay, thank you American Airlines!””

So true.

For me, my two biggest issues with Facebook now are that 1) it’s defiled the sacred word “friend” and 2) it’s missed the biggest sociocultural opportunity it had, that is to stimulate meaningful, self-expressive conversation between real human beings.

First, the “friend” issue:

Facebook has redefined and thereby diminished the concept of “friend.” How many of us have “friends” on Facebook we would have previously, more properly, called acquaintances, colleagues or former classmates? As far as Facebook goes, it might be more useful to consider our “friends” content streams (like RSS feeds from online publications). Let’s face it, most of what we do with our friends is to read and sometimes to comment on their posted content. “Friendship” is just about equivalent now to “Likeship,” where each relationship amounts to permission to broadcast to me. It can be an endless stream of smart-ass e-card images, news on Coke products and events, or posts on how your day is going.

In light of this, it may be that we’re using Facebook the wrong way.  If “friends” are just personal content streams, and very little more, the way to get the most value from Facebook may be to simply find personal content streams we like and subscribe to them, whether or not we’ve met that person. We should also “unfriend” every content stream that does not interest us, no matter the fact that we worked with or attended high school with that person 20 years ago. And then, in parallel, perhaps we should invent a new word for people (if we still have any) who we know well, care about, and with whom we share some measure of mutual resonance. The word “friend” no longer means that kind of person, so we may need a new word.

Second, the meaningful conversation issue:

I don’t know about you, but my Facebook friend collection is filled with true friends, old acquaintances, former coworkers, old classmates, family, and so on. It’s a diverse group, who have little in common but the link to me; i.e., their presence in my friend collection. When I float out something I’ve thought about or a topic of any depth, I get one of three results: 1) complete radio silence; 2) a smart-ass comment that deflects or avoids the topic; or 3) a handful of likes. The same thing happens when I comment with any thoughtfulness to the posts of others. In fairness, I have received a message or two over the years on topics, but literally just one or two. On Facebook itself, no conversation, no opposing points of view, no debate or insight, of any depth.

But post a picture of your kid, and you’ll get comments, most of which are predictable and shallow too.

So are we all so mindless? Are we afraid to speak our minds? Maybe we’re too busy to say more than the fact that we just got a blueberry scone from Starbucks? Do I need different “friends?” Well, we know Facebook commercializes our data, we suspect it has links to the FBI and CIA, and we certainly know that employers troll our pages in order to judge us. So I like to believe it’s because we’re chickenshit. The shallow conclusion is just too painful. So Facebook comments and postings are basically the polite and vapid banter of citizens living under the panopticon of a police state. Useless, harmless content.

What an awesome opportunity for a global net of productive communication we’ve missed here. There could have been all kinds of interest groups, poetry, collaborative novels, new philosophies, political action, and more. Some of this stuff does happen, I know, but it happens in remote niches. It doesn’t happen in the person-to-person context that dominates Facebook.

Of course, the reasons why Facebook is crap now have to do with commerce, privacy and all the compromises Facebook has made to grow and enrich itself. But another part of it is us: we must suck. We must be cowards. We’ve surrendered the sacred human bonds of friendship and open interpersonal dialogue to big data, big business and the governmental domestic security apparatus.

And now that the Facebook era is beginning to end, what next?

I hope it’s secure networks of real people with real minds, who are free, safe and interesting enough to generate content worth consuming. Maybe like old-school bulletin boards or certain obscure enthusiast forums. If there’s a social network with depth now, please let me know.

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Robots will steal your job, but that’s OK

Federico Pistono talks about his new book on the impending future:

Also, visit the book’s web site.

And the Singularity Hub interview.

His basic thesis is right, of course.

I quote from Federico’s book site:

“You are about to become obsolete. You think you are special, unique, and that whatever it is that you are doing is impossible to replace. You are wrong. As we speak, millions of algorithms created by computer scientists are frantically running on servers all over the world, with one sole purpose: do whatever humans can do, but better.

“That is the argument for a phenomenon called technological unemployment, one that is pervading modern society. But is that really the case? Or is it just a futuristic fantasy? What will become of us in the coming years, and what can we do to prevent a catastrophic collapse of society?

“Robots will steal your job, but that’s OK: how to survive the economic collapse and be happy explores the impact of technological advances have on our lives, what it means to be happy, and provides suggestions on how to avoid a systemic collapse and live happier.”

What he calls technological unemployment, most call structural unemployment, because it’s more than technology. It has to do with the entire model. I am eager to read the book and his conclusions.