I never thought I would become a futurist, but the older I get the more interested I am in what will be. Time tightens. There is less ahead than there was behind. Having children has forced my hand as well. What kind of world are we leaving for the next generation? I realize I must tear my eyes from the screen that dominates my life and lift my gaze toward a distant horizon. Without realizing it I have been working to bring it into focus for a while. I wrote this in 2013:
I suspect that I am not that different from anybody else in the digital life raft: both weakened and strengthened by the blazingly bright cult of tech, made woozy by the sea of data we float upon. More than ever, we need to process that data into knowledge and transform that knowledge into wisdom.
The passage stands up pretty well considering it was written six years ago, a tech-time eternity ago. Still, we know little and there is much to process.
How Much Longer Will We Be In Charge?
With Machine Intelligence getting smarter every day, and humans surrendering more and more of our minds to machines, it’s easy to go dystopian. When the machines take over, there will not be much for us to do, or we will, in the words of Apple’s co-founder Steve Wozniak, “become their pets.” I consider him an optimist, unlike Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, who believe the Machine Takeover will mean the end of our Anthropocene age.
The thing is, we aren’t really in charge. We just think we are. Climate change is showing us that we do not call the shots here on Earth. If we want to continue the illusion of being at the top of the heap, we will have to stop giving so much of our minds over to machines, and specifically, letting our phones take over our lives. When we pick up that device we surrender too much to convenience. Holding it in our hands we place power in the hands of mega corporations like Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple. And we do so willingly, handing over personal data, our habits, our biometrics. You’ve heard all this before, but we are at a tipping point. It’s a fiction, and a comfortable one, to believe that anybody human is really in charge at the mega corps. Algorithms, not people, make the decisions affecting us.
Algorithms, Not People
The Chinese government plans to rank people by social behaviors and use the rankings to assign credit scores. This goes into practice next year and the program will be run by algorithms, not people.
Life insurance policies underwritten by John Hancock will include the option to send them data from your Apple Watch or Fitbit. If you do it, they’ll give you a better rate. Is it creepy to let your life insurance company in on your realtime personal metrics? Yes. But as the company’s CEO Brooks Tingle put it, “The longer people live, the more money we make.”
Here’s another example of the rise of the algorithm: The shit Facebook has gotten into by allowing machines to pick stories to place in the Newsfeed. As has become painfully clear, a machine is bad at deciding whether or not news is fake, or what is propaganda, or what articles and stories may be planted to inflame people and tip elections. It is easy to game the system. Just the other day, Facebook took down 753 pages, groups and accounts because they were “engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior tied to Iran.” Coordinated inauthentic behavior sounds directly lifted from Orwell, but never mind. Things have gone pretty far south if your bad pages, groups and accounts reach the count of 753 before a human takes action. And those are just the accounts they caught. Imagine how many more are out there.
Unwrapping this further, I want to take apart the provenance of the “robots might keep us as pets” quote. It is not original with Wozniak. You need to dig back to a 1970 LIFE magazine article about an early robot built at the Stanford Research Institute. The robot was named Shakey and was the “first electronic person.” A researcher at MIT, Marvin Minsky, was quoted in the article.
In from three to eight years we will have a machine with the general intelligence of an average human being. I mean a machine that will be able to read Shakespeare, grease a car, play office politics, tell a joke, have a fight. At that point the machine will begin to educate itself with fantastic speed. In a few months it will be at genius level and a few months after that its powers will be incalculable.
Then Minsky added:
Once the computers got control, we might never get it back. We would survive at their sufferance. If we’re lucky, they might decide to keep us as pets.
“They might decide to keep us as pets.” From that 1970 LIFE magazine article the words entered the slipstream of ideas. Seven years later Issac Asimov grabbed them out of the air. Fittingly, his readers read them in the air, because he used them in an article for the in-flight magazine of American Airlines. He wrote:
But if computers become more intelligent than human beings, might they not replace us? Well, shouldn’t they? They may be as kind as they are intelligent and just let us dwindle by attrition. They might keep some of us as pets, or on reservations.
Now the idea was really in play. Physicist Roger Penrose replayed the prediction in the serious-sounding book Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness, and as recently as 2006 futurist Paul Saffo dusted off the prediction and even added to it:
One of the cleverest observations I have heard about a future of intelligent robots is that “… if we are lucky, they will treat us as pets, and if we are very unlucky, they will treat us as food.”
Here’s where it gets good. Saffo attributed the prediction to cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling, who says he can’t remember making it. Even better, Minsky, the MIT researcher who was supposedly the original author of the quote, denies he ever made the prediction. Ha! Nobody knows who said it or will take ownership of the quote. The way the quote took off, potentially without intervention of a single definable human, calls to mind the way algorithms are fast becoming our masters. Something is in charge and it is not us.
A Startling Lack of Agency
We like our free will and all that, but by relinquishing control to machines we are letting go of agency. No wonder so much futuristic fiction is dystopian. It’s a crushing vision. Compelling, too. Josh Clark of How Stuff Works has a podcast called End of the World. The idea is that we are the only intelligent beings around and if we screw this up, intelligent life forms will go extinct.
I prefer a different futurist scenario, one somewhere within the weirdo comedy of Mission to Zyxx, the deft, minimalist mindscape of Girl in Space, and the brilliantly mind bending fantasy of Ars Paradoxia. The science-minded and humanist conversation of The Afro-Futurist Podcast also points the way to a future I would like to live in.
Podcasts Tell the Stories
You’ll note that those citations are all podcasts. Podcasts are telling the stories of the future — the compelling, baffling, comic, strange, dramatic future that is coming up fast. Perhaps it is because in podcasting your listeners’ budget for special effects is infinite. You can create things in sound that you can’t in visuals. Like reading, the mind is the theater. With storytelling like that to drive and inspire us, we might affirm our humanity just in time.
Why I’m Co-Founding a Futurist Network
We need a diverse, inclusive, weird, speculative conversation about the future and our place in it. It’s time to make a place for ourselves as we’ve often done through history — by storytelling. by shaping the culture and imagining our place in it and doing it positively.
The pathways to dystopia have been paved by great thinkers: Orwell, Philip K. Dick, William Gibson. They can drag us under with their brilliance, but working toward a positive vision of the future is what we need to do now.
I’m forming the FutureX Network of podcasts with Ever Gonzalez of Outlier. The stories we tell on the network will be speculative and motivating. They will get listeners primed for change, imagining what we need to do next to survive and thrive. Our stories will carry a clear call to action to join us in fighting injustice, developing the resistance, or learning more about the challenge technology poses for humans.
It’s exciting and scary. The time to do it is now. We can’t keep enjoying the dopamine hits of social media, be led around by algorithms and, with barely a sideways glance, manage to destroy this beautiful planet.
Humans are special and strange. We must find a forward vision that allows us to exist in all our strangeness and not become estranged from each other. By starting the FutureX Network we will find out what it looks like, feels like, and sounds like.