The Future Starts Here — but who is it good for?

A folktale tells the story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice who meddled in magic that he couldn’t control. As a child I was terrified by Disney’s marching hordes of brooms multiplying and sweeping all before them. In the cartoon the Sorcerer unleashes his power and returns all back to normal. But is our future quite so reassuring?

Unintended consequences

Current discussions about the potential for Artificial Intelligence reminded me of the exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum (V&A) in London I visited last year. In the introduction to The Future Starts Here, it reminded us that new inventions are often subject to the law of unintended consequences, containing ‘potentials and possibilities, often unanticipated by their creators’.

As the V&A says, How do we determine what happens next — as individuals, citizens, even as a species?

Who benefits?

I found the exhibition fascinating and repelling at the same time. Mostly I think because it embodied the best and worst of human aspiration and reflected the inequalities in society, asking pertinent questions about who benefits from technological advance? Who owns it? Who has access? Should we do it just because we can? It reflected on democracy, elitism, the pace of change, loneliness, even what it is to be human and what are the boundaries between human and machine.

Installations ranged from cuddly seal-shaped robots which comfort dementia sufferers to machines that can be trained to anticipate and read human emotions, needs and desires. How healthy is it to depend on a machine for care and companionship, they asked. Will we forget how to love and care for each other?

Like all advances of course, Artificial Intelligence is not good or bad of itself. It depends on the use that it’s put to. Some of the stand-outs for me in the V&A installations showed contrasting approaches, both positive and negative.

Life after death?

For example, there is a device that enables you to live forever as a digital avatar by gathering your stories, thoughts and memories so friends and families can communicate with you after your death. This is possibly less creepy and has more benign intent than the wealthy people prepared to pay millions to cryogenic companies to keep them in frozen suspension against the time that it may be possible to re-animate them.

What kind of person really wants to be immortal — and why should money be the arbiter of who is worth preserving? Roald Dahl’s short story about a man who has his brain preserved after death comes to mind. The unexpected outcome for him as his wife takes her revenge was a piquant literary response to this desire for immortality.

However, set against this selfish impulse of self-preservation, the Solvad Global Seed Vault is a secure seedbank set up to ensure against the loss of seeds in other gene banks during large-scale regional or global crises, which would have enormous beneficial consequences for humanity.

Pace of change

Connectedness and the ease of staying in touch with friends far away has been a benefit we could hardly envisage even a few decades ago. But the pace of change and the control over big data by big companies, the democratic deficit and the power of state surveillance all pose worrying questions about the future of society and whether by the time the citizen catches up with what’s happening, it is too late to un-do corporate take-over.

But there were also heartening stories such as Teaching tech in conflict zones — for example teaching displaced people to digitally create the things they need through 3D printing, such as the creation of prosthetics. The most inspiring was a paper city created by a 13 year old Syrian boy who wants to grow up to be an architect and turn his vision into reality to restore his shattered homeland.

Or a self-organised emergency service — an app that enables people to get help without involving the formal emergency services and can also post and store live streamed videos that the authorities can’t remove, thus combatting cover ups and fake news.

And we mustn’t forget nature in our headlong rush towards tech expansion. We could create a worldwide web of trees — using living trees as radio antennae capable of communicating over long distances as an alternative organic internet capable of side-stepping governments’ control of information flows.

Or a project in the rainforest that could slow deforestation by weighing trees with lasers, calculating carbon biomass stored in forests and making trees more valuable as carbon sinks than timber. Visualising the life expectancy of urban trees through data, a visual display enabling people to connect with and appreciate their local trees as living and ageing — monitoring their health and feeling a sense of attachment or loss to better appreciate the benefits of a greener environment.

The fourth industrial revolution

The Future Starts Here reminds us that we are on the brink of a fourth industrial revolution that will be AI-driven. It is already pervasive, powering many gadgets, like smartphones, smart thermostats and voice-activated virtual assistants that bring modern conveniences to daily life. Machines can sense, learn, reason, act and adapt to the real world, amplifying human capabilities and automating tedious or dangerous tasks.

Whether AI brings benefit or ultimate harm to humanity depends on the direction of research and decisions we make now to shape the impact of technology on our future rather than be shaped by it.

Everything we love about civilization is a product of intelligence, so amplifying our human intelligence with artificial intelligence has the potential of helping civilization flourish like never before — as long as we manage to keep the technology beneficial.Max Tegmark, President of the Future of Life Institute.

This quote speaks to the essential dilemma of the human relationship with Artificial Intelligence.

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We build on Friends of the Earth's heritage in creating demonstrations and pilots to show what change is possible.

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