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“Why We Love Robots” from The Future Starts Here

Here’s an interesting, if not very in-depth, segment on robots from an AOL series called The Future Starts Here. The Future Starts Here is the work of internet pioneer and filmmaker Tiffany Shlain and is a show that seeks to “explore what it means to be human as we rush head first into the future.” In the following episode, Shlain is joined by her husband, Cal Berkeley professor of robotics Ken Goldberg.

Check it out:

Very clever visuals and some really easy-to-understand, perhaps simplistic discussion. But okay, what’s interesting here?

Well, first of all, Goldberg and Shlain make the point that the general emphasis of robotics is increasingly on robots that provide personal assistance to humans. “Robots that are more like companions than tools” is the way Shlain puts it. And I think that it’s becoming apparent, as robot development advances, that the killer app for robotics is social robotics in all its various forms. I’ll even go as far as to say the killer app for artificial intelligence is social robotics. People are going to pay more and more in the future for truly smart machines to help them with their lives and to generally keep them company.

The second interesting point here is the “cloud brain” idea. The cloud is enabling robotics, as all the memory and processing power does not need to necessarily reside in an individual robot. The tremendous opportunity to leverage the cloud and general internet of things technologies is driving a new wave of robots in development and commercialization. Aldebaran‘s robot Pepper, as an example, uses a “cloud AI” application to store and process data, to in effect “learn.”

Finally, there’s Goldberg’s point that robots are interesting because they make clear the gap between what machines can do and what humans can do. To put it another way, how far our technology lags behind nature. Or in Goldberg’s words, robots remind us “how amazing we are.” Well, it’s nice to have a little species pride, of course, but that gap seems likely to close more and more in coming years. Will we still love robots then? I think it all depends on how good they become as companions.

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Five Big Changes on the 10-Year Horizon

Before January gets away, I feel obligated to look forward and mention a few changes I see in the world in the next 10 years. These may not be the biggest or the most dangerous changes coming, but I believe this is a range of changes that are likely to have an impact:

1. Automation of Work — The continued automation of various labor roles will continue to grow, improving productivity and displacing human labor short-term. Depending on the severity of the changes (in terms of structural unemployment), there may need to be policy changes, like the institution of universal basic income, in order to maintain social stability. Positive outcomes could include a future of abundance and the diversion of human energies in interesting new directions; negative outcomes could include a deeply divided and conflicted society of haves and have-nots.

Related: Universal Basic Income and Robots.

2. Global Economic Restructuring — The state of the global economy is unsustainable because of various factors including massive debt, volatile financial markets, and poorly integrated global economies. The current cycle of boom and bust will only increase in amplitude over time until it could possibly tear the world apart. Positive outcomes of facing this problem might be stability through large-scale financial restructuring (including debt write-downs and new regulatory approaches); negative outcomes include a massive global economic crash that impoverishes everyone. Either way, we’re likely to have to face the music and restructure it soon.

Related: McKinsey on Global Debt.

3. Our Robotic Friends — Further growth in machine learning and artificial intelligence will facilitate the growth of social robotics and artificial personal assistants. Currently, human beings in the developed world are being aided by early machine intelligence in the form of Siri, Cortana, Google search engine, and various shopping recommendation engines. Also, social robots are available now that provide guidance, comfort, advice, friendship, and even companionship. Once AI researchers realize that many humans are lazy and lonely, and that social robotics is the killer app for AI, the field will blossom even further. Positive outcomes include various social and personal benefits (less depression, more efficiency) and the birth of many additional AI applications; a negative outcome might be the fears about AI taking over coming true.

Related: 2016 Will Be the Year for Social Robotics.

4. The Collapse of Geo Petro Politics — The emergence of efficiency and alternatives in energy will liberate us from the old fossil fuel regime, and improve our environment to some extent, but the geopolitical world is likely to go through tremendous change. Regimes will tumble, alliances will shift, the balance of power in the world will be recast. Negative outcomes include widespread conflict and suffering; positive outcomes include the opportunity to reframe global cooperation in a new light and with new objectives. Need some visionary leadership here, for certain.

Related: Oil Prices are Transforming Global Politics

5. Nomads, Immigrants and Global Citizens — Human displacement will continue to grow, both as people flee conflicts or failed states and as people pursue work and other opportunities across the globe. The rise of the “digital nomad” will increase as well. Borders will have to come down to some degree, and citizenship could possibly become more fluid. International law will be put to task as criminals will move more freely, as will terrorists, which are some of the negative possible outcomes; on the positive side, people could become more free to move about and find employment or other opportunities across the globe.

Related: Immigrant Crisis Impacts in 2016

This list could go on, of course, but these are my five big ones.

Note: I first developed this list as part of a World Futures course in the University of Houston Strategic Foresight program.


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Futurist Book Review: Transformative Scenario Planning by Adam Kahane

Note: This entry is the first in a series of book reviews on works of use or interest for futurists, including books that address the future in general, specific future domains, or futurist practice and/or methodology. 

Adam Kahane’s 2012 work, Transformative Scenario Planning, presents a variant of Shell’s adaptive scenario planning methodology that seeks to “construct scenarios not only to understand the future but also to influence it” (Kahane xv). Throughout the book, Kahane outlines the genesis of the Transformative Scenario Planning methodology, details the process steps, and provides several specific case studies from his experiences in applying and refining the process.

As emerges from the very first case study, that of the Mont Fleur project that Kahane led in South Africa at the time of the end of apartheid, the development of transformative scenario planning is designed for specific situations very different from its adaptive ancestor. In Shell’s adaptive scenario planning, the organization generally takes a reactive stance in that it views the environment as something to which it must adapt to the best of its ability, for the most positive outcome. Transformative scenario planning, on the other hand, looks at situations, contexts, or environments where several actors are stuck, to use Kahane’s word, and must work together to find their way out. Finding the way out means transforming the environment, not just adapting to it.

Specifically, transformative scenario planning, according to Kahane, is useful to people who are in the following situation:

  1. “These people see the situation they are in as unacceptable, unstable, or unsustainable” (16).
  2. “These people cannot transform their situation on their own or by working only with their friends and colleagues” (16).
  3. “These people cannot transform their situation directly” (17).

The transformative scenario planning methodology assumes that a facilitated scenario creation process that brings together these stakeholders in the situation described above can help them transform their situation. Most of Kahane’s work involved political situations where getting representatives from various factions together can facilitate solutions and break through barriers.

The big main idea here is that if you can get the right people together to build models of what could happen in their shared situation, you can empower them to actually shape their situation, and thus their collective future.

The method here is to get relevant actors together to create shared scenarios though a series of workshops. The goals are to transform the understandings, relationships, intentions, and actions of the actors in the situation (Kahane 18).

It requires the following components:

  1. “A whole-system team of insightful, influential and interested actors” (19).
  2. “A strong container within which these actors can transform their understandings, relationships, and intentions” (20).
  3. “A rigorous scenario-planning process” (20).

Further, there are five steps in the process:

  1. “Convene a team from across the whole system” (23).
  2. “Observe what is happening” (23).
  3. “Construct Stories around what could happen” (23).
  4. “Discover what can and must be done” (23).
  5. “Act to transform the system” (23).

The first step involves starting with a convening team of 5 to 10 people, who select up to 35 leading actors for the workshops. The second, third, and fourth steps involve facilitated work over the course of three to four workshops over three to four days. Finally, the scenario team works on the fifth step in a six to eight month period after the workshops.

The book contains many case studies, including some that were unsuccessful, but the Mont Fleur scenario from South Africa is perhaps the most important one, as it initiated the transformative scenario process. In this example, Kahane was asked by stakeholders in South Africa, at the end of the apartheid era, to facilitate a process to help the government and society move forward. Of particular concern was the integration of black political parties that were previously illegal. The team there came up with the following four scenarios, which informed much work afterward:

  1. Ostrich — No negotiated settlement.
  2. Lame Duck — No rapid and decisive transition
  3. Icarus — Government’s policies are unsustainable.
  4. Flight of the Flamingos — All items positive (Kahane 9).

Another example is from work in Zimbabwe, where issues of economic development and governance were parsed among stakeholders who were at various impasses. These scenarios, built on a 2×2 matrix with poverty vs. well-being on one axis and connected vs. disconnected government on the other, are colorful and memorable in name:

  1. The Chameleon (Connected government, poverty)
  2. The Stone People (Connected, well-being
  3. The Vulture State (Disconnected, poverty)
  4. Stimela/Locomotive (Disconnected, well-being) (Kahane 54).

Other examples included parties after the Guatemalan civil war, aboriginal issues in Australia, and more.

In general, this is a useful book in that it clearly outlines a process and methodology for doing a certain kind of consulting. While the case studies tend to involve very similar situations, almost all of which are political and related to developing countries, there are lessons to learn from the way the author applies his methodology. Specifically, Kahane’s emphasis on finding flexible and creative ways to engage stakeholders in their different points of view, such as taking field trips or “learning journeys,” or encouraging them to interact outside the formal workshop exercises, are particularly inspiring.

Of additional interest, and an idea I think all futurists should always keep in mind for their scenario workshop methodologies, is this idea of creating the container (or productive space) for the workshop. Kahane explains and emphasizes this well, and points to the key components: 1) the “political positioning of the exercise;” 2) the “psychosocial conditions of the work;” and 3) the “the physical locations of the meetings” (Kahane 20).

Another aspect of considerable potential value is Kahane’s emphasis on creating metaphors for the scenarios that emerge from the process. Some of the metaphors are engaging and because of their evocative nature, they tended to stick in the minds of the participants, becoming ideas that lived far beyond the initial scenario exercise. Several examples are noted above.

In conclusion, the book is a great, easy, short read that provides not only a process for scenario development but that is itself a case study in a futurist developing and refining his own methodology to largely great effect in a particular specialty area. The political nature of Kahane’s case studies may not appeal to everyone, and the method discussion is rather thin, but again a professional futurist or student should be able to extract value here.

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Kahane, A. (2012). Transformative Scenario Planning: Working Together to Change the Future. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.


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A-Z Culture Trends for 2016

Here’s a fairly comprehensive and engaging cultural trends forecast for the coming year, courtesy of Sparks & Honey, a self-styled cultural agency.


Flip through it and you’ll find lots of fascinating stuff, a veritable catalog of emerging ideas, practices and attitudes. I can personally say I’ve encountered many of these items for the first time in the past 30 days, including adult coloring books, fan activism, mood marketing, and more.

Of course, it all begs additional questions. What larger trends are at work here? What connects these items? How are they being combined? How could they be combined? How long will these trends last? What might they evolve into?

Great stuff, anyway, and rich food for thought in the new year.