Jamais Cascio

Photo by Bart Nagel

Interviews and Talks

My Name is Jamais Cascio, and I'm a Futurologist interview for pinITALY
(video)          July 2014

Everything Will Be Alright* interview for documentary series.
(video)          February 2014

Crime and Punishment discussion at Fast Company's Innovation Uncensored
(video)          April 2013

Bots, Bacteria, and Carbon talk at the University of Minnesota
(video)          March 2013

Visions of a Sustainable Future interview
(text)          March 2013
Talking about apocalypse gets dull...all apocalypses are the same, but all successful scenarios are different in their own way.

The Future and You! interview
(video)          December 2012

Bad Futurism talk in San Francisco
(video)          December 2012

Inc. magazine interview
(text)          December 2012
Any real breakthrough in AI is going to come from gaming.

Singularity 1 on 1 interview
(video)          November 2012

Momentum Interview
(text)          September 2012
One hope for the future: That we get it right.

Doomsday talk in San Francisco
(video)          June 2012

Polluting the Data Stream talk in San Francisco
(video)          April 2012

Peak Humanity talk at BIL2012 in Long Beach
(video)          February 2012

Acceler8or Interview
(text)          January 2012
Our tools don't make us who we are. We make tools because of who we are.

Hacking the Earth talk in London
(video)          November 2011

Cosmoetica Interview
(text)          May 2011
The fears over eugenics come from fears over the abuse of power. And we have seen, time and again, century after century, that such fears are well-placed.

Future of Facebook project interviews
(video)          April 2011

Geoengineering and the Future interview for Hearsay Culture
(audio)          March 2011

Los Angeles and the Green Future interview for VPRO Backlight
(video)          November 2010

Surviving the Future excerpts on CBC
(video)          October 2010

Future of Media interview for BNN
(video)          September 2010

Hacking the Earth Without Voiding the Warranty talk at NEXT 2010
(video)          September 2010

Map of the Future 2010 at Futuro e Sostanabilita 2010 (Part 2, Part 3)
(video)          July 2010

We++ talk at Guardian Activate 2010
(video)          July 2010

Wired for Anticipation talk at Lift 10
(video)          May 2010

Soylent Twitter talk at Social Business Edge 2010
(video)          April 2010

Hacking the Earth without Voiding the Warranty talk at State of Green Business Forum 2010
(video)          February 2010

Manipulating the Climate interview on "Living on Earth" (public radio)
(audio)          January 2010

Bloggingheads.TV interview
(video)          January 2010

Homesteading the Uncanny Valley talk at the Biopolitics of Popular Culture conference
(audio)          December 2009

Sixth Sense interview for NPR On the Media
(audio)          November 2009

If I Can't Dance, I Don't Want to be Part of Your Singularity talk for New York Future Salon
(video)          October 2009

Future of Money interview for /Message
(video)          October 2009

Cognitive Drugs interview for "Q" on CBC radio
(audio)          September 2009

How the World Could (Almost) End interview for Slate
(video)          July 2009

Geoengineering interview for Kathleen Dunn Show, Wisconsin Public Radio
(audio)          July 2009

Augmented Reality interview at Tactical Transparency podcast
(audio)          July 2009

ReMaking Tomorrow talk at Amplify09
(video)          June 2009

Mobile Intelligence talk for Mobile Monday
(video)          June 2009

Amplify09 Pre-Event Interview for Amplify09 Podcast
(audio)          May 2009

How to Prepare for the Unexpected Interview for New Hampshire Public Radio
(audio)          April 2009

Cascio's Laws of Robotics presentation for Bay Area AI Meet-Up
(video)          March 2009

How We Relate to Robots Interview for CBC "Spark"
(audio)          March 2009

Looking Forward Interview for National Public Radio
(audio)          March 2009

Future: To Go talk for Art Center Summit
(video)          February 2009

Brains, Bots, Bodies, and Bugs Closing Keynote at Singularity Summit Emerging Technologies Workshop (video)          November 2008

Building Civilizational Resilience Talk at Global Catastrophic Risks conference
(video)          November 2008

Future of Education Talk at Moodle Moot
(video)          June 2008

G-Think Interview
(text)          May 2008
"In the best scenario, the next ten years for green is the story of its disappearance."

A Greener Tomorrow talk at Bay Area Futures Salon
(video)          April 2008

Geoengineering Offensive and Defensive interview, Changesurfer Radio
(audio)          March 2008

Wired interview
(text)           March 2008
"The road to hell is paved with short-term distractions. "

The Future Is Now interview, "Ryan is Hungry"
(video)          March 2008

G'Day World interview
(audio)          March 2008

UK Education Drivers commentary
(video)          February 2008

Futurism and its Discontents presentation at UC Berkeley School of Information
(audio)          February 2008

Opportunity Green talk at Opportunity Green conference
(video)          January 2008

Metaverse: Your Life, Live and in 3D talk
(video)          December 2007

Singularity Summit Talk
(audio)          September 2007

Political Relationships and Technological Futures interview
(video)          September 2007

NPR interview
(audio)          September 2007
"Science Fiction is a really nice way of uncovering the tacit desires for tomorrow...."

Spark Radio, CBC interview
(audio)          August 2007
Spark Radio, part 2 CBC interview
(audio)          August 2007

True Mutations Live! roundtable Part 1
(audio)          July 2007
True Mutations Live! roundtable Part 2
(audio)          July 2007

G'Day World interview
(audio)          June 2007

NeoFiles interview
(audio)          June 2007

Take-Away Festival talk
(video)          May 2007

NeoFiles interview
(audio)          May 2007

Changesurfer Radio interview
(audio)          April 2007

NeoFiles interview
(audio)          July 2006

FutureGrinder: Participatory Panopticon interview
(audio)          March 2006

TED 2006 talk
(video)          February 2006

Commonwealth Club roundtable on blogging
(audio)          February 2006

Personal Memory Assistants Accelerating Change 2005 talk
(audio)          October 2005

Participatory Panopticon MeshForum 2005 talk
(audio)          May 2005

Reminder: Open the Future is on a temporary hiatus while I work on a book. I will post now and again, but may go for a few weeks at a time without updating. If you're new to the site, check out the "Start Here" links to the right. Thanks.

High-Frequency Combat

MILITARY ROBOT v2Science and technology luminaries Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Steve Wozniak count among the hundreds of researchers pledging support of a proposed ban on the use of artificial intelligence technologies in warfare. In "Autonomous Weapons: an Open Letter from AI & Robotics Researchers", the researchers (along with thousands of citizens not directly involved with AI research) call on the global community to ban "offensive autonomous weapons beyond meaningful human control." They argue that the ability to deploy fully-autonomous weapons is imminent, and the potential dangers of a "military AI arms race" are enormous. Not just in the "blow everything up" sense -- we've been able to do that quite nicely for decades -- but in the "cause havoc" sense. They call out:

Unlike nuclear weapons, they require no costly or hard-to-obtain raw materials, so they will become ubiquitous and cheap for all significant military powers to mass-produce. It will only be a matter of time until they appear on the black market and in the hands of terrorists, dictators wishing to better control their populace, warlords wishing to perpetrate ethnic cleansing, etc. Autonomous weapons are ideal for tasks such as assassinations, destabilizing nations, subduing populations and selectively killing a particular ethnic group.

They don't specify in the open letter (which is surprisingly brief), but the likely rationale as to why autonomous weapons would be particularly useful for assassinations, population control, and genocide is that they wouldn't say "no." Despite the ease with which human beings can be goaded into perpetrating atrocities, there are lines past which some of us could never cross, no matter the provocation. During World War II, only 15-20 percent of U.S. soldiers in combat actually fired upon enemy troops, at least according to Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshal; while some debate his numbers, it's clear that a significant fraction of soldiers will say "no" even to lawful orders. Certainly a higher percentage of troops will refuse to carry out unlawful and inhumane orders.

Autonomous weapons wouldn't say no.

There's another problematic aspect, alluded to in the title of this piece: autonomous military systems will make decisions far faster than the human mind can follow, sometimes for reasons that will elude researchers studying the aftermath. The parallel here is to "high-frequency trading" systems, operating in the stock market at a speed and with a sophistication that human traders simply can't match. The problem here is manifold:

  • High-speed decision-making will push against any attempt by human leaders to think through consequences -- not by making that consideration impossible, but by making it inefficient or even dangerous. If your opponent is using "high-frequency" military AI (HFMAI), a slow response may be detrimental to your future.
  • HFMAI can make opaque decisions, again with the result of potentially undermining longer-term strategic thinking. Note that "autonomous weapons" and "high frequency military AI" does not mean fully-self-aware, Singularity-style super-intelligent machines able to consider long-term possible consequences. HFMAI in the near term will be complex software designed to make specific kinds of on-the-spot decisions in the moment. If you've ever experienced a game AI doing something that gains a quick benefit but weakens its long-term position, or is simply utterly inscrutable, you'll understand what I mean.
  • Worst of all is that, just like high-frequency trading systems, opponents will be able to figure out how to spoof, confuse, or otherwise game the HFMAI software. Think about zero-day exploits tricking your weapons into making bad decisions.

    Although I signed the open letter, I do think that fully-autonomous weapon systems aren't quite as likely as some fear. I'm frankly more concerned about semi-autonomous weapon systems, technologies that give human operators the illusion of control while restricting options to pre-programmed limits. If your software is picking out bombing targets for you, that you tap the "bomb now" on-screen button may technically give you the final say, but ultimately the computer code is deciding what to attack. Or, conversely, computer systems that decide when to fire after you pull the trigger -- giving even untrained shooters uncanny accuracy -- distance the human action from the violent result.

    With semi-autonomous weapons, the human bears responsibility for the outcome, but retains less and less agency to actually control it -- whether or not he or she recognizes this. That's a more subtle, but potentially more dangerous, problem. One that's already here.

  • In the Press

    MeNS0715Yep, pretty busy lately. I hope to have a book announcement soon, though.

    I was asked to write a short opinion piece for New Scientist on the problem of filtering our reality, based on the success of the "Here Active Listening" system on Kickstarter. The piece is online, but sadly for now behind a paywall. This excerpt should give you a taste:

    Critics have also noted an implicit class element in paying for the ability to block out other people's lives. This ambivalence will only grow as the technology improves. Political protests, styles of music, and even specific voices or words could be blocked or altered as digital processing becomes more powerful.

    The desire to filter out what we find disturbing or unwelcome isn't new. In the online environment, it is possible like never before to repel opinions, ideas, or even facts that don't match our world views. The "real world" has been the stubborn holdout, confronting us with things that we may find insulting, offensive or blasphemous. That's about to change.

    For those of you who have followed my exploration of the "Participatory Panopticon" concept, these conclusions are unsurprising. What is a bit more startling -- at least to me -- is that the first real reality filtering technology will affect what we hear rather than what we see.

    This week also sees the publication of an article in Business Insider about the impact of self-driving vehicles, consisting entirely of an interview with me. This came as a bit of a surprise; the interview was actually done as a discussion about the Elon Musk Hyperloop concept, but it looks like the author/editor decided to shift the focus. No complaints here, except that the author quoted me accurately in a stream-of-words bit which included both a mis-statement and the immediate correction. If my main complaint is being quoted too accurately, I'll let it slide.

    The full article is online (and only online, I believe), but here's an excerpt:

    "It is going to be a more cultural shift even more than a technological shift because we have this romantic culture around cars and we are going to look back at that in the same kind of wistful way that we looked back at the relationship people had with horses," Cascio said.

    "You will probably have school girls with all kinds of model cars around the room instead of model horses. You will have people who really enjoy personally owned cars, but for the same reason people own horses today. It's not a utility; it's something that is a romantic hobby."

    That school girls with model cars around the room bit was a joke; I should really stop trying to make tongue-in-cheek references in interviews.

    Usefully Wrong

    It's a line I've used quite a bit in my talks: "The point of futurism [foresight, scenarios] isn't to make accurate predictions. We know that in details large and small, our forecasts will usually be wrong. The goal is to be usefully wrong." I'm not just pre-apologizing for my own errors (although I do hope that it leaves people less annoyed by them). I'm trying to get at a larger point -- forecasts and futurism can still be powerful tools even without being 100% on-target.

    Forecasts, especially of the multiple-future scenario style, force you (the reader or recipient of said futurism) to re-examine the assumptions you make about where things go from here. If your response to a given forecast is "that's bullshit!" you need to be able to ask why you think so. Even if the futurist behind the scenarios leaves out something important, she or he may just as easily have included something that you had ignored. To push this thinking, it's often productive to ask:

    • What would have to happen to make this forecast plausible?
    • What would have to happen to make this forecast impossible (not simply unlikely)?
    • What in this forecast feels both surprising and uncomfortably true?

    Thinking deeply about forecasts and futurism can change your perception. Events and developments that you might once have ignored or reflexively categorized take on new meanings and (critically) new implications. You start to think in terms of consequences, not just results. Here you ask:

    • Did I expect that event or development? Why or why not?
    • What should I now be prepared to see happen next?
    • What expected consequences or results did we manage to avoid?

    Unfortunately, if you really embrace this kind of thinking, you begin to see on a daily basis just how close we as a planet keep coming to disaster. "Dodging bullets" is the top characteristic of human civilization, apparently. Welcome to my world.

    Not Very Uplifting

    What responsibility do we have for the things we make?

    At its root, this is a fairly straightforward science story. Neuroscience researchers at the University of Rochester and the University of Copenhagen successfully transplanted human glial progenitor cells (hGPCs) into a newborn mouse (here's the technical article in The Journal of Neuroscience, and the lay-friendly version in New Scientist). While glial cells are generally considered a support cell in the brain, positioning, feeding, insulating, and protecting neurons, they also help neurons make synaptic connections. The hGPCs out-competed the mouse glial cells, basically taking over that function in the mouse brain, and -- as had been found in similar research (with adult glial cells) -- the mice demonstrated greater intelligence than their unaltered fellows.

    So, mice with grafted human brain support cells are smarter than regular mice. The next phase is testing with rats, which start out even smarter. The researchers insist that there's nothing especially human about these altered mice:

    "This does not provide the animals with additional capabilities that could in any way be ascribed or perceived as specifically human," he says. "Rather, the human cells are simply improving the efficiency of the mouse's own neural networks. It's still a mouse."

    However, the team decided not to try putting human cells into monkeys. "We briefly considered it but decided not to because of all the potential ethical issues," Goldman says.

    (...A statement that somewhat undermines his whole "it's still a mouse" argument -- after all, wouldn't it still be a monkey?)

    As always, I'm mostly interested in the "what happens next?" question. It's likely that rats with hGPC will show increased intelligence; same with dogs. And just because this set of researchers won't add the hGPC special sauce to monkeys doesn't mean that somebody else won't do it. And maybe even throw in a few neuron precursors for flavor.

    But even sticking with hGPCs, the fact remains: we're making these non-human animals demonstrably smarter. We are, in a very limited fashion, uplifting them (to use David Brin's terminology). They will be able to understand the world a bit (or even a lot) better than others of their kind. And at some point, we may well even end up with test subjects significantly smarter than typical and able to demonstrate behaviors unsettlingly close to our own.

    What rights should any of these types of uplifted animals have? Do we need to spell out a greater set of rights for the human chimera mice in the news report? Or as we create increasingly more-intelligent-than-typical animals, will there a point at which they could no longer be limited to the rights given to all scientific research animals? At what point would it become a crime to kill them, no matter how humanely or in accordance with ethical standards? It would be easy to draw the line if the uplifted animals exhibit human-like behavior -- complex communication, for example, or the creation of art -- but what about intelligence-boosted animals that exhibit forms of higher intelligence that don't readily map to human-specific behavior but are clearly beyond what a typical animal of that species could do? When do we give them a say in their own lives?

    This connects in fairly obvious ways to the ongoing efforts to provide more expansive rights to the Great Apes or Cetaceans, but it's equally an issue for the Magna Cortica project. What it's not is a science fiction question for our distant descendants. This is happening now, and these issues need to be addressed now.

    The Inevitable Future

    Film student Taylor Baldschun invited me to participate in a project of his, a short documentary on the end of humanity. His final (for the moment) version can be seen here:

    The Inevitable Future from Taylor Baldschun on Vimeo.

    On my first viewing, I started counting off the various mannerisms and habits that I find annoying in my own speaking style. But I was caught off-guard by my own final statement, which Taylor uses to close the movie.

    If humanity were to go extinct, obviously, our life goes away. Over time, our artifacts go away. So what really would be lost in that existential sense is potential. Because we know that we could do so much more than what we’ve done by now. That we could be better stewards of the planet. That we could develop tools to let us learn new things and go new places. That we could make a better world. And that goes away. That potential, that possibility… it would be an enormous loss of a future.

    And that, to me is, the hardest thing to envision — not because it’s difficult to imagine but because it’s painful to imagine.

    We have, as a civilization, as human beings, such incredible potential. Potential that has not yet been made manifest. And I hope that we have enough time to show the value of that potential.

    It's not perfect, could use a bit of editing to clean it up, but it's not too bad for something made up on the spot. The video as a whole is thoughtful, quiet, and well worth watching. It's not a bad way to spend ten minutes of your day.

    Magna Cortica talk at TEDx Marin

    (brushes away cobwebs, wipes dust off of screen, sits quietly for a moment and wonders what happened...)

    Screen Shot 2014 11 04 at 6 13 30 AM

    The video of my TEDx talk on the ethics of cognitive augmentation is now up, and you can view it at the TEDx Marin website.

    (It's also on YouTube directly, but for the time being I'm doing as asked and pointing people to the TEDx Marin website.)

    A few notes:

    Most importantly: This talk is based on the work I did for the Institute for the Future's 2014 Ten-Year Forecast. Of all of the things I would like to change about this talk, calling this out explicitly is at the top of the list.

    I don't actually speak as fast as I seem to at the outset of the talk; I believe that the editor elided some early "um"/"ah"/word repetitions, resulting in what sounds like I was going WAY too fast.

    Most of my usual gestures are on display, but I do think I managed to tone them down a bit.

    Unfortunately, I'm still pacing back and forth like a caged carnivore.

    There's one thing I do repeatedly throughout the talk, and I don't know why. I'm not going to tell you what it is, because I may just be hypersensitive to it.

    So there.

    Berlin Videos

    IsthereafuturistinthehouseThe Climate Engineering Conference 2014 in Berlin has uploaded the videos of all plenary sessions, available here. (http://www.ce-conference.org/conference-videos)

    The Berlin Museum talk I posted below can be listened to here:

    Climate Engineering and the Meaning of Nature (Jamais Cascio)

    (I had just finished writing the talk -- I scripted it to stay within a very strict time limit -- so I spend more time than I should looking down. Better to listen to than to watch, I think.)

    My brief digression on the nature of futurism in the context of thinking about the environment (a last bit of the last plenary meeting) can be found here:

    What Future for Climate Engineering? (Jamais Cascio)

    Finally, I was asked to moderate a panel on the challenges of writing about climate engineering:

    The Writer's Role: Reflections on Communicating Climate Engineering to the Public

    Talking About Extinction In Front of Dinosaurs

    I'm back from the first Climate Engineering Conference, held in Berlin. Quite a good trip, but in many ways the highlight was the talk I gave at the Berlin Natural History Museum. The gathering took place in the dinosaur room, which holds (among other treasures) the "Berlin Specimen" Archaeopteryx fossil, among the most famous and most important fossils ever discovered.

    The acoustics of the place, however, were terrible, so I don't know how well any recordings will turn out. Fortunately, I had to script my talk, so I can offer the full text of what I said:

    I’ve been doing foresight work for the past 20 years or so, and put simply, my job is to look at the big picture. To get away from the perspective of quarterly results and short horizon thinking. To break away from conventional points of view by stepping way back. Unsurprisingly, these days much of my work focuses on climate disruption and topics like geoengineering. But here’s the secret: in planetary terms, our actions don’t actually matter that much in the long run. The Earth, as a planet, as a global ecological system, will – over time – be just fine.

    After all, it’s dealt with worse than us. Environmental scientists may call the current era the “sixth extinction,” but human civilization is still pretty much a comparative amateur when it comes to wiping out the Earth’s species. Given that there’s a past extinction event called The Great Dying, responsible for killing off possibly 90% of the species on the Earth at the time, arguably we’re nowhere near as dangerous to nature as nature is itself.

    But here’s the thing: even after the Great Dying, life came back and, over time, flourished. Every extinction event has eventually become the catalyst for a new surge in life. Given time, evolution works. Environmental niches get filled. Species emerge and change to take full advantage of new planetary conditions. The animals and plants we worry will disappear as the result of human carelessness and ignorance are, in evolutionary terms, only temporary residents of the world – ephemeral, just like we are. The image we have in our heads of what the global environment looks like today is just that – a static snapshot of a dynamic system.

    This realization – that the Earth will abide, no matter our mistakes – may seem liberating but is actually quite sobering. Because what this knowledge tells us isn’t that we’re free to do what we will, but that the brutal strength of our fears about what human activity is doing to our world comes from its effect on us. The Earth may be fine, but the fragile webs connecting human civilization to the planet’s ecosystems won’t be.

    We don’t need to worry about driving the bees to the edge of extinction because the Earth will somehow be harmed; given time, evolution will fill that niche. We need to worry about the bees because without them our ability to feed ourselves will be eviscerated. Any anxiety we have about the creation of ocean dead zones or the collapse of fisheries is really about what these conditions will do to humanity, to the ability of seven-plus billion people to survive. And the dangers from global temperatures rising by five or more degrees over the course of just a century – an increase so fast in geologic terms it seems as if humanity is somehow the warming equivalent of an asteroid hitting the planet – these dangers will simply make it impossible for human civilization to continue on its current path.

    So, does that mean civilization will collapse? Probably not. Humans are reasonably smart. As a species, we’ve survived massive natural environmental disruption before, and with less knowledge and fewer tools than we have today. But that’s not the whole story.

    When writer William Gibson said that “the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed,” he wasn’t just talking about technology. Imbalances in resources, in power, in luck all mean that a majority of the world’s population already lives on the precarious edge of catastrophe. From my “big picture” futurist point of view, it’s easy to say that we’ll adapt. But for far too many of us, that process of forced adaptation will be tragic, and painful, and deadly.

    Saying that the Earth will be fine isn’t an attempt to absolve ourselves of responsibility for the harm that we’ve done to the planet. Rather, it’s a blunt acknowledgement that the concerns we have about the world are ultimately – and, I think, appropriately – selfish. The health of the environment, here in this moment of the Anthropocene, is directly connected to the health of human civilization. We’re not separate from nature, we’re very much a part of it; in every sense that matters the well-being of the Earth is thoroughly, intimately, interwoven with our future. In other words, when we harm the planet today, we are really harming ourselves over the long tomorrow.

    TEDx in Marin

    So, the second announcement can now be revealed: I'm one of the speakers at the 2014 TEDx Marin event on September 18. I'll be talking about the Magna Cortica, and will be speaking alongside my IFTF colleague Miriam Lueck Avery (talking about the microbiome), CEO of the Center for Investigative Reporting Joaquin Alvorado (talking about reinventing journalism), UC Berkeley Professor Ananya Roy (talking about patriarchy and power), and Kenyatta Leal, former San Quentin inmate (talking about how education and entrepreneurship can transform prison).

    TEDx events can be a bit of a gamble; there have been enough low-quality, misinformation-driven speakers that I've generally steered clear of all of them. TEDx Marin, however, looks to have a solid history of picking good, smart people to offer interesting and provocative observations -- without veering into controversy for controversy's sake.

    Tickets are limited, run about $70, and will only be available through August 5. Come out and say hi!


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