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July WFS Arizona Chapter Meeting: Bob Bergman on Systems Thinking

As many of my readers know, I’m a member of the World Future Society and the organizer of the WFS Arizona chapter. If you’re interested in the future, I encourage you to join the World Future Society. If you’re in Arizona and interested in the future, I invite you to join us for our chapter meetings.

For July 29, 2015, our featured presentation topic and speaker will be as follows:

Bob Bergman on Systems Thinking and Chronic Social Problems

Understand why good intentions are not enough to solve chronic social problems and the application of systems thinking to understanding why homelessness persists in Maricopa County.  While there will be a brief discussion on the complexity of social problems (Wicked Problems), this will not be a discussion on complexity theory, adaptive complex systems, autopoiesis, bifurcations, co-evolution, chaos and edge of chaos, emerging properties,far-from-equilibrium-states, power-law, self-organized criticality, sensitivity to initial conditions, etc.  Rather this will be a discussion on the usefulness of applying systems thinking to chronic social and structural problems, with the hope that further “futures discussions” can take a similar approach.

Bob Bergman is President at Southwest Management Technology, LLC. He has 45 years of experience in management, technology, strategic planning, and systems thinking. Bob has been a WFS member for many years as well.

Time allowing, a spirited discussion will likely follow.

Join us on Wednesday, July 29, 2015, from 6:30 pm to 8:30 pm, at the Scottsdale Public Library Civic Center at 3839 North Drinkwater Boulevard, Scottsdale, AZ (we’ll be in the Gold room on the first floor).

To attend our meetings, you don’t have to be a formal WFS member, you just have to be interested.

RSVP at our meetup site here.

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Imogen Heap’s Mycelia and the Post-Capitalist Future

It’s no big secret that the past two decades of technological innovation have changed our social and economic systems. The changes have been deep and far-reaching, disrupting most everything, from how we communicate and transact, to the nature and methods of work, to what actually has value. And the forces of technological change are not done with us yet. In fact, they are accelerating in pace, but they’re also working at such a deep structural level that sometimes it’s hard to see what’s really going on.

I think the music industry is a great example of what’s happened, as well as what’s going to keep happening. First of all, the historical music industry is a typical old-school industrial capitalistic enterprise, with the typical innovations and exploitations of its type. Simplistically, labor was organized to create a product (embedded materially in the old black phonograph discs) which was promoted and sold through mass media and retail distribution channels. But the music industry has always been also an industry with a lot of information-age capitalist characteristics, so when digital and  information technology eventually allowed subtle shifts in the industry’s business model, the old-school industrial-age edifice crumbled.

The transition from vinyl LPs to CDs as the product was not a big deal at first, as the existence of a material object of value remained in place, as did the physical channels of promotion and distribution. But what happened in the move from LP to CD was the liberation of the value through the digitization of the intellectual property, i.e., the music. Once the music became digitized, and disembodied from a material object with obvious industrial-age qualities of value, property, and exchange, the model fell apart rapidly through mp3 file sharing, online distribution networks, and more.

Here’s a financial look at what happened to the once-lucrative music industry when the model crumbled:

And the future doesn’t look any better, of course. In so many ways, it shouldn’t make sense, because there are more people listening to more music than ever before. It’s not that we’re all thieves. It’s just that music is no longer embedded in old-school capitalistic material objects of exchange. It’s about access now, and it’s mostly free. It’s pure information now existing in a global digital ecosystem of free distribution. The scarcity imposed by the old model is done and over with, replaced by abundance.

This new reality is great for music fans, because all music ever created is more or less now at the fingertips of anyone with an internet connection, most of it free to listen to. It’s not so much that you can own it all; it’s that you don’t have to own anything to get the value. The transformation of music from product to information has had its painful side-effects, as it’s now more difficult for some musicians to receive compensation for and protect their intellectual property. But the reality is that the world has changed, and those are old-school capitalist concerns. Musicians are now information workers (like youtube video artists, free game designers, and bloggers) and have to find new ways to get returns. And they are indeed figuring it out.

The big thing here is not the music industry, though. The big thing is that everything is following this path. Through a vast array of emerging technologies, from 3D printing to the sharing economy, everything is moving from object to information, and thus becoming free of the capitalist productization involved in the manufacture of scarcity. In other words, everything is becoming information; information has close to a zero marginal cost, and so is close to free; and thus we are heading toward a world of abundant free stuff.

On Friday, July 17, economics journalist Paul Mason wrote an excellent piece in the Guardian called The End of Capitalism Has Begun. His point wasn’t that somehow the working class would rise up and the socialist revolution would start soon; no, that’s all old-school industrial capitalist era thinking. His point: all this technological change is eroding the bases of the capitalism we know, and we should all be prepared for post-capitalism, the thing that comes next. It’s worth quoting Mason’s explanation of the hows and whys of post-capitalism here:

“Post-capitalism is possible because of three major changes information technology has brought about in the past 25 years. First, it has reduced the need for work, blurred the edges between work and free time and loosened the relationship between work and wages. The coming wave of automation, currently stalled because our social infrastructure cannot bear the consequences, will hugely diminish the amount of work needed – not just to subsist but to provide a decent life for all.

“Second, information is corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly. That is because markets are based on scarcity while information is abundant. The system’s defense mechanism is to form monopolies – the giant tech companies – on a scale not seen in the past 200 years, yet they cannot last. By building business models and share valuations based on the capture and privatization of all socially produced information, such firms are constructing a fragile corporate edifice at odds with the most basic need of humanity, which is to use ideas freely.

“Third, we’re seeing the spontaneous rise of collaborative production: goods, services and organizations are appearing that no longer respond to the dictates of the market and the managerial hierarchy. The biggest information product in the world — Wikipedia — is made by volunteers for free, abolishing the encyclopedia business and depriving the advertising industry of an estimated $3bn a year in revenue.”

Mason is right, and these three points above are the key ones.

So, if music leads us forward, consider this story from George Howard, appearing also on Friday, July 17, in Forbes magazine, about musician Imogene Heap’s new vision for a blockchain-inspired, artist-centered model for the music industry of the future. Heap calls her vision Mycelia, after the huge, branching ancient fungal creatures, and it’s worth quoting an extract (you can read her full vision here):

“It dawned on me a few months ago that the mechanism to create and sustain a place like Mycelia exists now with the help of blockchain technology and crypto-currencies … its success will come from the adoption of millions of music lovers. A grand scale ongoing, collective project like no-other. To document, protect and share that which we love and build a place for it to grow, enabling future generations of artists to blossom as well as honouring those of the past …

“Open source, a living, breathing, smart, decentralised, transparent, adaptable, useful, shining home for our love of music. A home which allows creativity to flow, connect and facilitate collaboration on so many levels, many of which just haven’t been possible. With this grand library of all music forming the basis upon which all music businesses from digital radio to tour bookings can then grow and thrive from …

“Each artist acting like its own Mycelium, in full animated dialogue with others on the global network … Mycelia is huge, as it holds all music related information ever recorded anywhere ever ever ever but this organism stretches across our planet between hundreds of thousands of personal computers. It is the world’s greatest and most treasured library and it belongs to the two collective parties who solely make music complete. The music makers and their audience.”

Mycelia is a grand vision, and who knows whether Heap will be able to realize it exactly as she imagines, but it’s where everything seems to be going, not just music. Everything. Mycelia-like post-capitalist systems are forming or will soon form for every human endeavor imaginable. And it’s the disruptive open-source, peer-to-peer sharing, blockchain models being invented right now that are making it all possible. We may encounter some bumps along this road, sure, but it feels reasonable and possible, not just far-fetched and idealistic.

As a postscript, if you’re not familiar with how cool Imogen Heap is, watch this wonderful video, where she talks about her tech and performs. If you want to get to the music, skip ahead to about 12:30 for her performance of Me the Machine, a haunting song in which she reflects on what it might be like to be a machine wanting to be human; it’s as sublime a performance as the fictional Diva Plava Laguna in my opinion. Check it out:

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Melanie Swan on Bitcoin and Blockchain Technology

Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have become widely familiar, but the open-source blockchain technology that supports them is less well known and understood. It’s unfortunate because the disruptive potential of blockchain technology goes far beyond Bitcoin.

My friend and futurist colleague Melanie Swan, of the Institute for Blockchain Studies and Singularity University, is doing an excellent job of explaining the wider potential of the blockchain approach in transforming the models underlying much of our economic and socio-legal infrastructure.

Melanie recently delivered this excellent lecture on the basics and potential of Bitcoin and Blockchain at the University of San Francisco. Here is a video of her lecture:

Also, if you’d like to read along, here are Melanie’s slides:

Finally, I highly recommend Melanie’s book Blockchain: Blueprint for a New Economy.

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Meet hitchBOT, the Robot Currently Thumbing its Way Across America

It seems we have finally begun to enter some early phase of critical mass on robotic enterprises. Robots are being developed to do all sorts of things, from manufacturing to social companionship.

And here’s a new one: a robot is hitchhiking across America in real time, right now.

Meet hitchBOT:

The US is not the first of hitchBOT’s adventures. It’s already crossed Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands. This time, well, I’ll just quote hitchBOT, from its web site:

“On July 17, 2015, I am shining my wellies to start my hitchhiking adventure across the USA. My journey begins at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts. From there, I hope to complete items from my hitchhiking bucket list with the help of strangers. My final destination is the Exploratorium in San Francisco, California. Only time will tell how long my journey will take me. I cannot wait to make new friends along the way.”

The experiment here, I gather, is about humans as much as it is about robots. Sure, hitchBOT will travel, take photos, and post to social media, but the crux of it all involves interaction and trust with humans. As with robot servants, companions or employees, close human-machine symbiosis is perhaps the biggest key to a harmonious man-machine future.

You can follow hitchBOT’s progress across America on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

And please, if you see hitchBOT on the side of the road, be a good human and give it a ride.

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Brainets: Networking our Furry Friends

The concept of the hive mind, or collective intelligence, has always been an interesting one. The fact that humans, through communication and collaboration, can achieve collective knowledge and execute collective tasks beyond the scope of an individual’s mind or abilities may be one of our great evolutionary advantages.

Well, what if we can harness the power of several animal minds, working in parallel, to complete computational tasks? That’s exactly what researchers at Duke University have been working on. Neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis at Duke’s Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, and his team are working to use brain-machine interface technologies to connect animal brains into “brainets,” or networked neurological systems that compute and/or solve problems.

Here is a video of some of their earlier work with rats, with a brief narration at the end by Nicolelis:

In this video, an encoder rat and a decoder rat collaborate, adjusting their behavior to optimize performance over time.

Research published by Nicolelis this week, as described here, involved connecting the brains of three monkeys to a computer that controlled a graphic arm represented on a screen. By working together, the three monkeys were able to move the robotic arm in specific ways (for which they were rewarded).

Here’s the video, such as it is:

As brain-machine interface technology grows, the potential to harness animal brains for computing power seems utterly fascinating, but as I’ve noted before, our ethical work often lags woefully behind our scientific and technical work (especially as we exploit other creatures). What deep insights into the ways intelligence works we could uncover here, and I hope we do, but the moral dilemmas seem like something right out of an old episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Certainly there was an episode where a misunderstood scientist perfects a system to link and control multiple brains?

What could go wrong, right?


A Night at the Weird: A Robot-Staffed Hotel Opens in Japan

As a sign of the increasing automation of service industries around the globe, and perhaps also a symptom of Japan’s ongoing practice of replacing its people with technology, the Henn Na Hotel (apparently translated as “Weird Hotel”) is scheduled to open Friday, July 17, 2015, in Sasebo, Japan.

According to the proprietor, Hideo Sawada, the hotel, although part of an amusement park, is not a gimmick, but is rather an attempt to use innovation to solve standard hospitality challenges efficiently and cost-effectively. The hotel uses a wide range of technology, from cameras to facial and voice recognition technologies, to serve, secure and protect guests. It seems also that room keys are to be replaced with facial recognition locks.

Here’s a little news item on Henn Na that shows some of the robots, including a diminutive T-Rex:

So, what a fascinating and innovative concept, and one that Sawada is committed to developing, including the potential addition of social robotics approaches that cater to and comfort elderly guests.

Is this the future of hospitality? Maybe. Maybe not. But here’s a view of Japan’s population situation:

Given the downward trend lines, the Henn Na may at least be the future of hospitality in Japan. And if the world’s population follows suit, it may be that a night at The Weird won’t be so weird in the near future.

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The BBC’s Machine Minds Infographic

Sharing this interesting infographic from BBC Future.

I love the thinking and graphics here, all kudos and credit to iibstudio. I also love the potential pitfalls and “worry,” all of which I agree are a concern. But maybe I’ve read too much science fiction and talked to many wild-eyed innovators, but I’m not sure the “far-fetched” items here are really so far-fetched.

And the Processing Power vs. People Skills bit at the end is good, but how long will it be true? Certainly social robots are developing those people skills too.

As popular support, Business Insider put out this video on the rise of social robotics last year.

BBC Future published this slightly cautionary piece on social robotics last year as well.

Finally, are the “science fiction” items in the infographic above going to stay fiction much longer?

That’s definitely one of the key questions for me.

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The Arrival of EmoTech

From the rising popularity of nootropics — those smart supplements and neuro enhancers designed to improve cognitive functions and emotional states — to the emergence of wearable devices that promise altered moods, it’s clear that EmoTech, or emotional technology, is an emerging industry worth watching.

I’m defining EmoTech here as any technology that has as its end goal the alteration of human moods or emotional states. Of course, we as humans have been using chemical substances, from coffee to beer to cannabis and other natural drugs, for thousands of years. But what’s new is the degree to which we are beginning to understand the brain and how to hack our own biology. It’s not just about quick fixes of stimulants or depressants, but electricity, magnetism, and more.

As an example of new EmoTech, here is Thync, a mood-altering wearable that promotes calmness and/or boosts energy (video from TechCrunch):

Fascinating, but in the future, imagine EmoTech at the nano scale, and everywhere. I can envision a nanotech system in my brain that releases chemicals according to my desires. I could bliss out or indulge in an hour of sadness for variety’s sake. I could become gregarious or outgoing if I wanted, just by dialing up the right emotional state. And so could everyone else. We could gather in happy bliss gardens to smile at each other or gather in a sad bar to mope a bit to some downbeat music. Whatever we choose at the moment. It might help us all achieve self-actualization, or lead us to new heights of human diversity. Imagine anger fetishists or fear daredevils, for instance; as long as there is choice, humans are likely to make interesting choices.

The possibilities of EmoTech seem endless, and perhaps strange, and the social and ethical complications are many. And we’ll likely be wrestling with these complications soon.

Special thanks to my futurist friends at our monthly Sushi and the Singularity meetup in Scottsdale for inspiring this post. 🙂