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May 28, 2013

The End of the World As We Know It (and I'm rather annoyed)

Fast Company's Co.Exist just put up my latest piece for them: "The End Of The World Isn’t As Likely As Humans Fighting Back." It's the latest in my series of short essays under the working title "Stop Complaining About the End of the World and Do Something About It." Here's how it starts:

While it’s certainly true that one can tell a compelling dramatic story about the end of the world, as a mechanism of foresight, apocaphilia is trite at best, counter-productive at worst. Yet world-ending scenarios are easy to find, especially coming from advocates for various social-economic-global changes. As one of those advocates, I’m well aware of the need to avoid taking the easy route of wearing a figurative sign reading The End Is Nigh. We want people to take the risks we describe seriously, so there is an understandable temptation to stretch a challenging forecast to its horrific extremes--but ultimately, it’s a bad idea.

In all seriousness, dystopias are boring and, as a tool of foresight, counter-productive. Enough, already.

Crime and Punishment

Co.Exist has put up a short video from my discussion at their recent Innovation Uncensored event in NYC. In this video, I talk about why thinking about misuses of technologies is a good way of discovering the unexpected implications of change.

At a panel of futurists at Fast Company's Innovation Uncensored conference, as part of our Futurist Forum, Cascio said: "If you what to find out how to use a new emerging tool, don’t ask the people who invent it, because they have a very narrow view of what it’s supposed to be used for. The people who are hacking it--the people who use it for crime, who use it to have sex, who use it to do something fun or different--those are the people who are going to find out the little interesting variations."

May 22, 2013

Unwittingly Participating in the Panopticon

This does not seem like a good combination:

  1. The FBI wants (has?) backdoors to monitor Skype (along with other Internet telephony apps); tellingly, there's already concern that such backdoors are open to non-FBI intruders.

  2. The soon-to-arrive XBox One has Skype built-in, making use of the video camera on the Kinect.

  3. Said Kinect is required, and cannot be disconnected.

  4. And the XBox One will need to have regular (daily) Internet access, meaning that most people will just leave it connected to their home broadband.

Anyone want to place a wager on how many months it will be after the XBox One is released before there's a "XBox Spying" scandal?

May 20, 2013

Imagination Experiment: Visualizing Transformative Tech

Cena cxo bigTime for another thought experiment. Or, rather, a puzzle without a good answer yet.

We're getting pretty good at building extremely powerful telescopes. The Kepler planet finder orbiting telescope may have gone functionally offline, but Hubble keeps plugging along, and the James Webb infrared telescope is on the calendar. And when we look out in the universe, we're seeing some pretty amazing stuff.

But what if the stuff we're seeing is even more amazing than we think?

Imagine, if you will, a very high technology non-human civilization living in two star systems (reasonably close to one another, say half of a light year, to make colonizing moderately feasible; that's close enough to share an Oort Cloud) about 10,000 light years from us. About 10,000 years ago, they split into three factions:

The first wants to go full upload, transcend into post-Singularity bit-liness. They've decided to disassemble their entire planetary system into Computronium, creating a web around their home star to absorb energy to support their digital lifestyle. (Charlie Stross describes this process in the later chapters of Accelerando, required reading for anyone who follows this blog.)

The second likes the idea of tearing things apart, but it less enthusiastic about the whole "turn ourselves into software" upload thing. They make use of similar tools to disassemble their own planetary system to create a Dyson Sphere. (The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Relics" is probably the best visualization of a Dyson Sphere around.)

The third faction says "the hell with this noise" and wants to bug out. They build a fleet of modified Alcubierre warp-drive ships to zip around the galaxy. This apparently plausible system uses exotic matter to compress a bubble of space-time around the ship, allowing it to travel effectively faster than light, even though within the bubble the ship is still traveling at a reasonable sub-light speed. None of these ships heads to Earth, but some of them head roughly in our direction, such that photons from the ships arrive along with those from the Computronium conversion and the Dyson Sphere construction.

Okay, got it? Three groups, each doing something different, with the light from their ultra-tech activities just now getting to Earth.

What do we see?

What would the disassembly of planetary systems look like? A Dyson Sphere, by definition, blocks out the home star; what would it look like as the Sphere came together? A Computronium web, conversely, need not block the entire star, but would consume quite a bit of energy; would that radiate differently than a "normal" star?

And just what would a warp-bubble-drive ship look like in action? It may only require a ton or two of "exotic matter," but that still translates into enormous amounts of energy being used to push around spacetime like a middle-school bully.

How would we know we're seeing something artificial, rather than a bizarre natural phenomenon?

May 14, 2013

Getting It (Almost) Right

Ask any reputable modern futurist to make a prediction, and you'll nearly always get the same general reply: futurists don't make predictions, we talk about scenarios, implications, and forecasts -- structured narratives about future possibilities that make clear the uncertainty and contingency of outcomes.

But push a little harder, and you might hear something a little different: it's always fun to get one right.

So it's with all due humility that I quote the opening of this CNN/Fortune article:

As Wall Street predictions go, Jamais Cascio had a good one. A little less than a year ago, Cascio, a distinguished fellow at think tank Institute for the Future, in a blog post, predicted that retweeting Twitter bots combined with a fake news story posted by hackers on a major media website would cause a market crash. That's pretty close to what happened.

The post in question was "Lies, Damn Lies, and Twitter Bots" from last August. My blog post argued that it would likely take a bunch of twitter bots/hacks acting in concert to shift stock market activity, but it turned out that it only took the temporary hijacking of the Associated Press twitter feed. I guess I over-estimated how risk-averse high-frequency trading systems would be.

So was the point of the hack to get the stock market to undergo a brief crash, allowing someone to make a bunch of money? It's unclear, but the utility of the twitter-driven-flash-crash is now abundantly clear. This won't be the last time something like this happens.

Push-Button Gunsmithing and the Long Arm of the Law

ClickprintbangCalifornia state Senator Leland Yee wants to stop people from being able to print out firearms with 3D printers. Like many other folks, Yee was startled by the work of Defense Distributed, a group working on designs for guns that can be produced by the 3D printers. A few months ago, Defense Distributed crafted a grip and lower receiver for an AR-15; more recently, they produced a fully-functional handgun. Yee's not the only official trying to put a stop to this: NY Senator Chuck Schumer wants legislation to explicitly outlaw 3D printed guns, and the US Department of Defense recently ordered Defense Distributed to remove the plans from their website while the government sorts out whether they violate weapon export rules. To the surprise of nobody who pays attention to the Internet, the Pirate Bay has already returned the weapon blueprints to the web.

To be clear, these two designs are not world-shaking developments. While the AR-15 grip and receiver are critical parts of the semiautomatic rifle, they're not sufficient to make a working weapon on their own. Conversely, the handgun – called “Liberator” by Defense Distributed – is a nearly-complete design (needing only a penny nail for a firing pin), but it can manage only a few shots before falling apart. It’s essentially a 3D printed zip gun. Nobody's going to start an army with 3D printed weaponry... today.

Tomorrow is a different story: within the decade, it's entirely likely that we'll see a completely functional, high quality semiautomatic (or even fully-automatic) rifle being produced via 3D printing. Many people would consider that to be a bad thing, or at least something requiring close supervision. But what are the realistic options?

Here's the core problem: you can't just tell a 3D printing system not to make a gun. You might be able to tell a system that it can't print out a specific design or file, assuming that you can lock down to printer's operating system so that it can't be altered. But in that scenario, how would you stop the design of a firearm made up of printed components that don't look like gun parts? And even if you could somehow restrict the ability of a printer to make a weapon, any 3D printer able to produce a high-quality firearm would almost certainly be able to print out another 3D printer, this time without the restrictions. This is by no means an outrageous or speculative proposition. Among the earliest-available low-cost 3D printers was (and is) the RepRap -- the Replicating Rapid-Prototyper (an older term for 3D printer).

Senator Schumer seems to be pushing to add 3D printed guns to the existing prohibition on firearms that can't be detected by metal detectors. This would focus on the possession of the weapon, and seems reasonable. State Senator Yee, however, may have bigger ideas:

He’s concerned that just about anyone with access to those cutting-edge printers can arm themselves.

“Terrorists can make these guns and do some horrible things to an individual and then walk away scott-free, and that is something that is really dangerous,” said Yee.

He said while this new technology is impressive, it must be regulated when it comes to making guns. He says background checks, requiring serial numbers and even registering them could be part of new legislation that he says will protect the public.

It's ambiguous, but Yee here is probably talking about checks, serial numbers and such for printed guns. However, he may be referring to the printers themselves as needing controls. And even if Yee isn't yet taking that step -- he has yet to introduce the legislation -- someone else will. But how can you control something that can replicate and evolve?

May 3, 2013

The Fuzzy Now

Thought experiment: imagine you've been taken, somehow, and dropped into a big city in another place, with comparable technological and economic development, somewhere you don't speak the language. Here's the twist: it's also time travel. How long would it take you to notice that you've been shifted in time as well as space?

I've been thinking more lately about how it is we (as a collection of societies) respond to the world evolving around us. I've written before about the banality of the future -- the idea that changes that seem mind-boggling and transformative from the perspective of today would seem utterly boring to people who have lived through the development and slow deployment of those particular changes. There's also William Gibson's famous line, "the future is here, it's just not evenly distributed." I'm fascinated by the idea that our perception of "the future" is contingent upon where and when we live.

At the Institute for the Future's 2013 Ten-Year Forecast event, I offered the concept of the "fuzzy now" -- the stretch of time before and after the present day in which there seems to be little if any significant change. The length of the fuzzy now period corresponds to how much disruptive, dislocative change is taking place. Which brings us back to the thought experiment: if you're within the "fuzzy now," you may not realize that you've traveled in time for days.

Dropped into a new place, your first clues that you're in a different year would come from the gross physical environment: transportation types, building size/materials/designs, clothing design. You'd also be looking at what people are doing as they go about their business -- if they are fiddling with mobile phones, for example. Are there cues in terms of social behavior around ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation? (Of course, if you spot an abundance of Zeppelins in the sky, you know immediately that you've moved to an alternate universe.)

Clues would come in two broad categories: things that should be there, but aren't; and things that shouldn't be there, but are.

If you were to be sent back ten years (2003), for example, you might not immediately recognize that you were in a different year. Clothing, building, and automobile designs would be familiar enough, and the lack of the most recent items wouldn't be instantly apparent (especially if you factor in being in a different country, where such differences would be masked by cultural/market variations). One possible clue you might notice soon is the fewer number of people using mobile devices, the complete lack of any kind of "tablet," and that the mobile phones in use are essentially all the old "feature phone" with buttons and tiny screens. Nobody has an Android or the like -- the iPhone wouldn't be coming out for another five years. Depending upon where you were, you might also see more public telephones and newspaper boxes. And once you saw that, you'd likely start picking up all sorts of other clues, especially about technology and media.

In short, we can say that ten years back is probably just beyond what we'd consider the "fuzzy now" -- you wouldn't notice immediately (as you would if you were bounced back a hundred years, or probably even 25), but you'd very likely pick up on it within an hour or two. Five years, conversely, would almost certainly be well within the "fuzzy now;" you'd eventually pick up on the shift, but it might take a day or more.

What about if you were shifted forward in time ten years, not back? I'd hazard a guess that you'd notice much more swiftly that something was very, very wrong. Why? Because while the physical objects, designs, and media of ten years ago might seem dated, they would also seem familiar; decade-old stuff is often still in active use. New stuff would be a surprise, especially if the overall appearance was distinctive from anything back in your home time. Some of it you might discount as being in another country, but seeing big signs for electric vehicle rapid-charging stations, or bunches of people walking along the street wearing the descendants of Google Glass, or just about everyone wearing hats for sun protection, these would quickly stand out, especially in combination.

A five year forward jump probably wouldn't be detected as quickly, but -- depending upon what kinds of developments we see -- could start to feel weird and wrong within an hour or two. This parallels the depiction of ten years back: the changes may not immediately be noticeable, but would not remain hidden for very long. This could actually be more dizzying than a jump in time that's immediately visible -- your sense of safety, already compromised by the unexpected shift in place, gets steadily undermined by the gnawing sense of wrongness. A bigger shift in time, conversely, is like ripping a bandage off -- shocking, but all at once.

The observation that a five year forward jump might parallel the effects of a ten year backwards shift suggests that a "fuzzy now" might extend twice as far back as it does forward. The you from 2013 would likely feel at home anywhere from (say) 2008 to 2015/2016, perhaps going for days without realizing that you've moved in time as well as space.

There's a futurist adage that to get a sense of the changes we face, you need to look back twice as far as you look ahead. My suggestion of the structure of the fuzzy now seems to align with that, at least superficially. But what needs to be clear is that I'm not saying that we'll change twice as much over the next ten years as we did in the last. Rather, it's that we are more sensitive to the emergence of the new than to the persistence of the old.

This has a few implications for foresight work.

It's a useful way of explaining the "banality of the future" idea. It's all about perspective. We may think of developments happening eight or ten years from now as being wildly disruptive, but for people living eight or ten years from now, today (2013) seems only marginally different at best.

It also offers a language for thinking about how different parts of the world experience change. A stable part of the developing world may have a broader fuzzy now than a place going through conflict or environmental destruction. Similarly, it's a way of articulating the disruption arising from different kinds of changes or events -- do they (temporarily?) shrink the fuzzy now period? Does a global economic downturn make the fuzzy now period expand?

Ultimately, it's a way of articulating the shock that can accompany big disruptions. We rely on the comforting knowledge that tomorrow will be pretty much like today. That seeming stability -- the spread of the fuzzy now -- actually allows us to think about the future. We don't have to look at our feet when we walk, figuratively speaking. But if you're accustomed to the present feeling like the last five or six years, and the next few years likely to seem like more of the same, suddenly having that perception of the present reduced from years to weeks, even days, can be enormously debilitating. Suddenly, we have to watch our feet.

A disruptive, cataclysmic future doesn't goad us into action, it eviscerates our ability to look ahead.

Jamais Cascio

Contact Jamais  ÃƒÂƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚¢Ã‚€Â¢  Bio

Co-Founder, WorldChanging.com

Director of Impacts Analysis, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology

Fellow, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

Affiliate, Institute for the Future


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