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Disruptive Futures: A Workshop on the Future of Nuclear Weapons

Just recently, I noted the new president’s statements on nuclear weapons, in which he said the following: “It would be wonderful, a dream would be that no country would have nukes, but if countries are going to have nukes, we’re going to be at the top of the pack.”

The implication there, I suspect, is that “dream” is a code for impossibility, and thus Trump advocates expanding or somehow improving the nuclear capabilities of the United States. Perhaps it’s just a continuation of the trillion-dollar modernization program discussed by Obama or perhaps it’s a new global arms race. I don’t know for certain, and I wonder if anybody else does, including the President. With this uncertainty at the state level, and the increasing sophistication of terrorists, it reminds me, and should remind everyone, how nuclear weapons remain a tremendous existential threat to humanity and one that futurists should engage as much as possible.

To that end, this is a great occasion to showcase a extraordinary futures-related summit that happened in December of 2016, called Disruptive Futures: Nuclear Weapons Summit.

The Disruptive Futures: Nuclear Weapons Summit in Santa Fe, New Mexico, from December 4-7, 2016, was designed to engage a new type of discussion about nuclear security. Over the course of three days, 45 interdisciplinary leaders from across the country, including futurist fellows like myself from the World Future Society, were immersed in the history of nuclear weapons, discussed present day nuclear threats and — most importantly — explored ‘what if’ scenarios about the future of global security. To accomplish this innovative model for a convening about nuclear weapons Creative Santa Fe partnered with N Square, NTI (Nuclear Threat Initiative) and PopTech.

One of the unique aspects of the event was the degree to which the public in Santa Fe was engaged. Public events kicked off and closed the three day summit. The large public opening event was “A Conversation with William J. Perry and Eric Schlosser.”

Here is a full video of that conversation, as well as associated video content:

William Perry served as Secretary of Defense from 1994 to 1997, and in more recent years, he’s become a strong advocate for reducing the risks of nuclear weapons. Here’s Perry’s Nuclear Project site. Eric Schlosser is an American journalist, author and filmmaker known for investigative journalism, such as in his books Fast Food Nation (2001), Reefer Madness (2003), and Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety (2013).

As the final part of the futures process, the summit participants presented 2045 Future scenarios to the public at the Violet Crown theater in Santa Fe. The days in between the two public events were filled with past and present talks and tours, but also qi-gong and collaborative exercises designed by Rhode Island School of Design industrial designers.  The success of the summit is in large part due to the disruptive nature of the program itself.

Here’s is a video showing scenes from the final presentations:

One of Creative Santa Fe’s primary economic objectives is to shine an international spotlight on Santa Fe. They believe that Santa Fe can become a global destination for leaders to tackle some of the world’s most challenging issues by leveraging New Mexico’s key assets: art, culture, science, technology, environment, and heritage. To that end, they have launched Disruptive Futures, and there promise to be more futures-oriented events.

A hugely important topic. A powerful process. Futures in action. I encourage everyone interested in positive futures to engage with the nuclear issue at least enough to get a lot better informed than our president seems to be at this point.

The future may depend on it.

[Thanks to the folks at Creative Santa Fe for the videos and some of the event summary above.]

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ASU’s Emerge: A Festival of Futures, 2017

If you’re in the Phoenix area this Saturday, February 25, 2017, be sure to visit this year’s edition of Emerge: A Festival of Futures at Arizona State University’s University Club, from 3:00 pm to 9:00 pm.

Here’s the official description:

Emerge: A Festival of Futures

EMERGE is an annual transmedia art, science and technology festival designed to engage diverse publics in the creative exploration of our possible futures. The festival’s 2017 theme is Frankenstein, a 200-year old novel that still motivates us to think critically about our creative agency and scientific responsibility. This year EMERGE invites visitors into a house of wonder filled with speculative technologies, fortune tellers, music and film, and performative experiments that blur the boundaries between art and science. The festival revisits the past in order to reframe our sense of the present and inspire imagination of plausible futures, and asks what we can learn today by looking at emerging science and technology through the lens of art.

Held concurrently with Night of the Open Door, during which ASU invites the public into its laboratories and studios, EMERGE focuses a critical eye on the future implications of research taking place on campus and around the world. Visit us at the University Club and the Piper Lawn February 25th, from 3-9PM for installations and performances designed for all ages.
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Every year, it’s awesome and FREE. RSVP here.


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Great New Futurist Site: Seeking Delphi

Seeking Delphi is a great new blog from futurist Mark Sackler. Mark is a fellow Houston Foresight colleague of mine and a great thinker with a wealth of experience and perspective on key future issues.

With Mark’s permission, I’d like to showcase his great, ongoing podcast series here. So far, Mark has addressed longevity and fuel cell technology with engaging interviews of people in the know. Here’s a sample:


I highly recommend that folks in interested in the future check out future insights from Seeking Delphi.


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Three Interesting New Social Robots for 2017

Social robotics continues to develop, and new robots are appearing on the market all the time. According to reports from this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), robots stole the show. Typical of the reporting, USA Today wrote, “We saw robots to make your morning coffee, pour candy, fold your clothes, turn on and off your lights, project a movie on the wall, handle your daily chores and most impressively, look just like a human, or in this case, legendary scientist Albert Einstein, with facial expressions and movement.”

Turn on and off your lights? Well, all these little household applications may seem like small, even trivial steps along the way to the robotic future of our favorite scifi movies, but they are steps, and consumer demand for social robots, i.e., robots that interact with us socially and/or play predominantly social roles in our lives, I would argue, is key to the development of useful and human-supportive (as opposed to destructive) artificial intelligence.

Although I didn’t attend CES this year, here are three relatively new social robots that intrigue me:

Pillo, The Home Health Robot for Your Family

Offered currently on indiegogo, Pillo is one of several applications of social robotics to the provision of healthcare. As I’ve written before, as medicine becomes more and more automated, there will be value in the automation having some “bedside manner,” that is, exhibiting behavior that is informative, comforting, social and friendly.

Here’s the description of Pillo from its creators: “In today’s hectic word it can be easy to forget the things that truly matter, like the health & wellbeing of you & your loved ones. That’s why we created Pillo. Pillo can answer healthcare Q&A, connect with doctors, sync with mobile & wireless devices, store & dispense vitamins & medication, & can even re-order them for you from your favorite pharmacy. What’s more, his skills will grow as we build additional applications on Pillo’s platform. Stay healthy & discover true peace of mind with Pillo.”

Mykie, “My Kitchen Elf,” The Home Kitchen Assistant

From Bosch, Mykie is at this point a concept robot that was exhibited this year at CES, but as a kitchen robot type, he exhibits an IoT connectivity that is likely to develop further in the future, especially in smart home and smart city contexts. Mykie can suggest recipes but can also connect to a smart kitchen environment to optimize recommendations. As IEEE Spectrum wrote, “Bosch is hoping that a substantial amount of Mykie’s usefulness will come from the way it can integrate into the rest of your kitchen. For example, you can ask Mykie to come up with recipes that use the food you currently have in your smart fridge, and as you start cooking, the robot will preheat the oven to the right temperature for you at the right time. You can also use Mykie’s “virtual social cooking” to remotely attend cooking classes in real time, following along in your kitchen at home as both Mykie and a human instructor help you cook something that you might not otherwise be comfortable cooking on your own.”

Gatebox’s Virtual Home Robot

Last but not least is Gatebox’s Virtual Girlfriend, uh, I mean Virtual Home Robot. Gatebox claims to be “the world-first virtual home robot with which you can spend your everyday life with your favorite characters.” In the video, of course, the application is that of a romantic or emotional companion for a lonely male corporate worker. It may be a sad reflection of the increasing isolation in our increasingly digitized global society, but it’s clear that robots and tech in general will have a valuable role to play in caring about human beings in the future. An article from the UK outlet Daily Mirror asks whether Gatebox is “romantic or incredibly creepy?” But to paraphrase the Bard of Avon, the answer is likely all in the eye of the beholder.


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The Puritan Work Ethic, Automation, and the “Job Crisis”

When looking at the prevailing trends and forecasts related to automation and technological unemployment, it’s clear a crisis-level conflict is coming to many developed countries, but it’s not the kind of conflict many pundits think it is. It’s not going to be billionaire Nick Hanauer’s torches-and-pitchforks scenario of income inequality, for example, where we had better find some way to keep the 99% from rioting against the 1% elite (Hanauer). Similarly, it’s not going to be that huge expansion of unemployed population that will require some centralized economic intervention like the universal basic income, where everyone, not just the unemployed, receives a dividend from the government. It’s a very different kind of crisis heading our way. But before we identify what it is, let’s look at a quick sample of those automation trends and forecasts and get a feel for the two horns of the current dilemma, as it’s framed.

According to a recent article in The Economist, “47% of workers in America had jobs at high risk of potential automation” (Automation). But it’s not just the manual labor factory jobs at risk; big data, analytics, machine learning, and similar technologies are poised to impact “legal, medical, marketing, education, and even technological industries” (Alton). There seems to be broad consensus on this point, but two primary perspectives on where it goes. On one hand, Moshe Vardi, professor of computer engineering at Rice University, “foresees unemployment as surpassing 50 percent by 2045” (Matyszczyk). On the other hand, James Bessen, an economist at Boston University, notes that “while electronic discovery software has become a billion-dollar business since the late 1990s, jobs for paralegals and legal-support workers actually grew faster than the labor force as a whole, adding over 50,000 jobs since 2000, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The number of lawyers increased by a quarter of a million” (Bessen).

And so the debate has been framed in the collective consciousness thus: in the future, new technologies, specifically automation, will either eliminate jobs, and create a widespread crisis of the social and economic order, or else will create new jobs we haven’t imagined yet, preserving our livelihoods, social structure, and global economy. Rather than come down on one or the other side of the debate, I’d like to suggest the crisis has less to do with technology than most think. While I will grant that the nature of the technologies coming online are unprecedented, especially advanced artificial intelligence, humans have used technologies of one sort or another to solve problems and create value for thousands of years. No, technology isn’t the problem. To think that technology is taking “jobs” from human beings is a failure to understand what’s really going on. We have a larger structural and conceptual issue coming for us: the breakdown of the concept of employment. Technology taking jobs isn’t the problem; the problem lies in what we think a “job” is, and what it increasingly isn’t.

More specifically, the coming crisis, if there is really to be one, will be a crisis of meaning, not of livelihood, and this is the key distinction. In the debate on technological unemployment, most commentators equate employment with livelihood, and it has certainly been that in our legacy capitalist system. It is natural to think concretely here, that if there is less demand for humans in the workforce, there will be more human beings who lack a means of livelihood, the means to acquire their material needs. So, it’s also natural to think we have to determine how to make sure those livelihood means exists, either in other, new jobs or through some systemic correction like a universal basic income.

But the “job” in our developed capitalist society is more than a livelihood. Setting aside for the moment the idea that it’s a social relation, a contract between capital and labor, a job is most importantly a morally loaded social concept derived from what Weber called the Puritan Work Ethic, where the work a human being does is tied up with Christian concepts of virtue. As Noble notes, “the emergence of that rational ethic, indispensable to the development of industrial capitalism, was closely associated with the rational religious ethic of the Puritans” (125). The following excerpt from Weber sums up how close employment (or “calling” in Weber’s terms) is bound up with moral (and thus social) virtue:

“The working life of man [sic] is to be a consistent ascetic exercise in virtue, a proof of one’s state of grace in the conscientiousness which is apparent in the careful and methodical way in which one follows one’s calling. Not work as such, but rational work in a calling, is what God requires” (quoted in Weber, 126).

And yes, the moral power of the Puritan work ethic not coincidentally reinforces the exploitative nature of the social relations that preserve class distinctions in capitalism, as it equates metaphysical virtue with social obedience in selling one’s labor through employment.

Even today, this close equation of employment (in the capitalist economic structure) with virtue, or to put it more plainly, being good and valuable, is one of the most powerful unacknowledged social forces in modern Western cultures. A study from Northeastern University found that employers exhibit a strong hiring bias against job seekers who are currently unemployed (Ghayad), and unemployed people have been targets of other, less-formal expressions of prejudice and exclusion as well. Unemployed recipients of welfare benefits are often perceived as disadvantaged and morally suspect, stereotyped as lazy and borderline criminal, often, in the United States at least, with racist overtones (Schneiderman). Despite the fact that our cultural and religious views no longer reflect the old Calvinist strictures, the employment-related biases of the Puritan Work Ethic persist, against all evidence that hard work, wealth, and virtue are in any way statistically correlated.

In our cultural unconscious at the present time, then, jobs are sacred, and having a job, building a career, working hard — all of these things create social status, self-esteem, and legitimacy. When jobs disappear because human labor is not needed in the quantities it once was needed, it’s not the missing livelihood that becomes the crisis. We can likely fix that, economically, if we have the will to fix it. Corporations, actually, may find motivation to support universal basic income schemes, as they may need consumer spending to support their operations. Regardless, as the future unfolds, and technology expands in the way it has the potential to expand, automation, artificial intelligence, and other advanced technologies will not only replace jobs, these technologies may provide material abundance at a level we’ve only dreamed. Tech guru Peter Diamandis, for one, believes this technological bounty is certain; his book The Future is Better Than You Think is an extended paean to the abundant future. And if technological abundance happens, fewer “jobs” will be needed, and we’ll have to give up our religious attachment to employment as a source of human value.

Finally, as humans in developed global capitalist cultures, we simply depend too much on the “job” to give us personal meaning. And that’s not just an individual issue; it’s a potential collective issue too: our religious attachment to “jobs” may do more to damage our environment and broader economy than widespread unemployment. The attachment to “jobs” may lead policymakers to invent myopic, damaging schemes such as reopening coal mines so that former miners can work. Since most mines are automated now, policymakers would have to prohibit automation in those industries. They would also need to stimulate coal demand by promoting dirty energy in the face of advances in efficiencies and demand for clean energy, as well as a need to protect the environment. Leaders also may need to financially subsidize such industries as coal in a global market environment where commodities like coal are cheap. In other words, such schemes would work against market forces to create sloppy, unsustainable solutions in order to preserve the “job” economy. As meanwhile, younger generations have entered the “gig” economy, becoming youtube stars, entrepreneurs, and digital nomads, reinventing the concept of work to fit their own aspirations, and thus abandoning the biases of their fathers and mothers. Ironically, then, in the future, we may have to abandon “employment” in order to prosper.

References:

Alton, Larry. “What Will Happen When AI Starts Replacing White-Collar Jobs.” www.forbes.com. Forbes Magazine. May 25, 2016.

“Automation and Anxiety.” www.economist.com. The Economist Newspaper Limited. June 25, 2016. 

Bessen, James. “The Automation Paradox: When computers start doing the work of people, the need for people often increases.” The Atlantic. 19 January 2016. 

Ghayad, Rand. “The Jobless Trap.” Northeastern University and Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, 2014. 

Hanauer, Nick. “The Pitchforks are Coming … For Us Plutocrats.” www.politico.com. July/August 2014. 

Matyszcyzk, Chris. “Robots Could Push Unemployment to 50% in 30 Years, Prof Says.” www.cnet.com. February 14, 2016. 

Noble, Trevor. Social Theory and Social Change. New York: Palgrave, 2000.

Schneiderman, R.M. “Why Do Americans Still Hate Welfare?” Economix Blog. The New York Times. December 10, 2008. 


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The Internet of Things, Ubiquitous Computation and the Evolutionary Future of Objects

Here is a short slide presentation on a possible technological future. As humans at this point in time, we are in the midst of and agents of evolutionary forces—and these forces are driving us toward a future of smart objects everywhere. Matter wants to be conscious, and we will help it become so.

Here’s the presentation:

Lots of challenges ahead, but the suggestion here again is that in the anthropocene, humans and our technologies become the transformative evolutionary forces. Things that adapt and fit into the ecosystems we are building will flourish in the future, but things that do not will most likely perish. It’s unfortunate, but some organisms will become extinct.

However, this possible future includes the idea that through pervasive computation every object, from a pen to a desk to a mountain, will be transformed into smart matter that will eventually attain intelligence and then consciousness. A form of technological hylozoism, a new natural world.

The final argument here is that, given that this is the direction evolution is flowing, wouldn’t it make sense to flow with it by investing in and working on the technologies that get us there?


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Gerd Leonhard’s Technology vs. Humanity

Futurist Gerd Leonhard has a new book out called Technology vs. Humanity. According to the site, “Technology vs. Humanity is a last-minute wake up call to take part in the most important conversation humanity may ever have. Will we blindly outsource and abdicate big chunks of our lives to the global technology companies – or will we take back our autonomy and demand a sustainable balance between technology and humanity?”

Leonhard is asking what I agree are the big questions for us here and now. This short video sums it up:

At the end of the video, the big questions/issues/forces: Datawars and Privacy; Exponentiality; Transhumanism; Singularity: Heaven or Hell; The Internet of Things; Artificial Intelligence; Towards Abundance; Digital Ethics; Ego to Eco; Algorithms to Humarithms; Digital Obesity; Sustainable Capitalism; Networked Society; and Robot Love.

Check it out. You can read a sample previous at the book site at Technology vs. Humanity.