you are the (self-)chosen few first subscribers of “10 Questions For the Future”, my new newsletter. Thank you for opening this!
This is how the format will roll:
► This newsletter includes ten topics I’ve been stumbling upon and have been thinking about. As the title suggests, more questions with context than direct answers.
► It starts with a technology focus and goes on to cover a broader range of issues once you get closer to number ten. Feel free to skip what’s not your cup of tea or read on later. It will still matter tomorrow, hopefully.
► I will send this newsletter every 10-15 days.
Here we go.
1. Will hypocrisy become impossible?
The Hyprocalypse is coming! At least this is what Robin Hanson has been proclaiming in one of the more original futurist ideas this year. The argument goes like this: Your face doesn’t lie and we will live to meet technology that is excellent at reading your feelings in real-time (for example via Augmented Reality). Thus, technology and hypocrisy are on a collision course in a couple of decades, surfacing secret crushes on office-mates or giving you trouble with that angry guy in the bar who recognises that you think he’s an idiot.
To be honest, when I first heard the term I thought Hyprocalypse was describing the impossibility to fool yourself about whether you lead a moral life. All the infos about your ecological footprint, the impact of things you do and products you use are becoming readily available. No way to pretend you live sustainably. But I guess that’s me, feeling the crushing guilt about climate change coming for humanity.
But let’s stick with Robin’s idea: This field of emotion recognition is called “affective computing”. A former engineer in this field commented under the blog, calling the scenario “SkyNet”-like. Which means ridiculous. Computers suck at recognising emotion, and probably will continue to do so. Which to me doesn’t mean that the tech might not be used, if “only” for interrogations or in small-scale surveillance. Technology moves gradually and there are countries and circumstances where this would be found acceptable. Maybe - and this is a big maybe - even to the point of even becoming a consumer product like the one Hanson describes in his scenario.
Sure enough, reports about this kind of emotion mining in a workplace context have already surfaced from China - though the medium is not visual recognition, but brainwave-tracking via a helmet, apparently used in factories to “design the workflow”. In authoritarian capitalism, hypocrisy consists of not working enough, I suppose. I always treat such reports with a healthy dose of scepticism; not the existence of such a program, but whether it shows anything useful. And that’s the double bind: Such technologies might not work and still be used - maybe leading to faulty decisions because of faulty recognition. Or just intimidating people enough to blend in a little bit more, to think what you are supposed to think until you won’t recognise the difference between your own thoughts and those superimposed on you.
2. Should we take note of the term “Streambait”?
Analysis on how Spotify is changing music has become a genre of its own this year, and I find it a very enjoyable one. Liz Pelly has written some of the most insightful pieces about it for the Baffler and now she is dropping the term “streambait” on us: Clickbait! But for streaming. Music that is made for easy consumption & Spotify singles. Not risky, but fine-tuned for being a background soundtrack with a hook.
“These sounds and strategies all have streambait tricks embedded within them, whether they aim to wedge bits of a song into our skulls or just angle toward the inoffensive and mood-specific-enough to prevent users from clicking away.”
This sounds a bit like the soulless stuff Major labels released for decades, though with no technological sophistication and pattern analytics back then. And as Liz Pelly notes, now it is models, Reddit-celebrities and Ed Sheeran’s girlfriend who are recording songs that sound like Lana del Rey. Unlike in the 1980s I suppose, when it was models, nightlife-celebrities and the young girlfriend of a label-executive recording songs that sound like Madonna.
But indeed Liz Pelly is on to something. I have a suspicion that “streambait” is a key motivator for Netflix to keep “Friends” in its catalogue for $100 million: A series that for many Americans offers a warming familiarity, forgoes any disturbing plot-shockers and allows you to do your painting, cooking or to just turn off your brain while watching.
3. A second paradigm for “AI”?
As some of you know, Prediction Machines (to use a less loaded term than “Artificial Intelligence”) are currently using layers of computer nodes that work together to find patterns in data. The fantastic Karen Hao recently caught up with David Duvenand from the University of Toronto. He and his team have been trying out an alternative method that gets rid of the layer-concept altogether and uses: equations. The system has the name “ODE solver” with ODE meaning “ordinary differential equations”. In this field, I appreciate the dull name. Or whatever else keeps the marketers and Ted-talkers at bay!
Karen does a great job of explaining the details, what stood out for me was the idea that equations absolve you from choosing how many layers you use on the training data and that they can handle fuzzy data points better. Right now ODE is in a very early phase, but with billions pouring into the field, it is a good time to try out new ideas.
4. Are sports drones becoming tools of war?
Well, if the Pentagon has its way, they probably will: It is currently trying to convince drone producers to update their consumer models for military use. They will be used to monitor battlefields from above, at least that’s the promise of “Project Phoenix”. Actually, I was surprised twofold: For once, the spendthrift U.S. military seems to look to reduce spending. And I would have imagined they already have similar types of drones.
What is interesting is the argument that the DoD is making to the tech companies. It goes like this: China and the U.S. are replaying the cold war between the Soviets and the U.S., but this time in cyberspace. You better help. Yes, you remember correctly: A consumer-friendly version of this was used by Mark Zuckerberg in his Senate-hearing - if you regulate us, China will have all the important tech breakthroughs. My guess is you will hear different versions of this all over the world in the years to come and it will collide with the “let’s talk about ethical tech”-narrative that has been gaining traction since 2017.
5. What if transhumanists lack fantasy?
If you read this, you are probably as tired of Ray Kurzweil as any sane person should be. But obviously, like any decent science-fiction-genre, transhumanism won’t go away anytime soon. But what are we actually trying to achieve? Enter the Anglican Archbishop, poet and philosopher Rowan Williams who has a suspicion: Gene editors and transhumanists alike will face the reality that they are running into a problem that software developers have been criticised for - that is, designing a pattern that mirrors your own biases.
“What kind of human beings do we want to generate, to nurture? What worries me most is that we have the capacity, but an alarmingly deficient imagination of what that might be. We have tools for the ‘enhancement’ of our human experience which, at the far end of the spectrum, takes us to post-humanism, the idea that there’s something of our humanity which could survive in non-organic form. So, will you breed out certain kinds of human experience and existence? If you know that you are able to select against X, Y and Z, how far does that extend? And I think that’s where we do face a real imaginative challenge which we’re very ill-equipped to manage, because people speak, again, as if the answers were obvious, somehow.”
Well, it is too early to see how far we will go (CRISPR) or be able to come close to anything that’s not simply an annoying chatbot imitating your deceased husband (transhumanism). The good thing is that these issues are being discussed. The bad thing is it might not matter. There is a distinct possibility mankind will come back to some kind of Übermensch-pattern, and be it just because you (you being rich enough to afford it) want your child to become a famous athlete or the future Apple CEO or yourself be more or less immortal. But even if we found gene-combinations for bad traits, like being prone to starting fights (I know this is not realistic, but y’all let me finish), it would not morally justify switching them off. And switching “good” things on and “bad” things off seems to be exactly the lack of fantasy Mr. Williams reminds us about.
6. Will we see Scooters slowly disappear?
Okay, I have to admit this is kind of personal. Being a pedestrian has become pretty annoying here in Austin, as the city does not have clear rules for scooters, which means you are fair game on the sidewalk. This report by the WSJ suggests that investors are cooling towards Scooter-startups because… vandalism & bad hardware that make the business more expensive. Just ask the volunteers who are scooter-fishing in Oakland’s Lake Merritt, pulling out dozens.
The scooters are mostly made by the Chinese company Ninebot , which has been scaling up like crazy, obviously leading to the usual quality problems. And now the Center for Disease Control is heading to Austin to do a study about scooter-related injuries. What I’ve heard and seen on the streets, it won’t be pretty (and as a German I haven’t failed to notice that nobody is wearing the required helmet). This looks to me like it will take a lot of hype out of the scooter-phenomenon, though popularity on the ground seems to hold for now (in cities with mild winters, at least).
7. Will “technical co-founders” be able to skip the line?
Christopher Mims recently stated the obvious (though some German sceptics would probably call him oblivious for that): “Every company is now a tech company”($). Technology has been creeping in from the machine room through the backend to being the core of the product. Christopher looks at some acquisitions, especially Walmart buying Jet.com (that was founded to be an exit play anyway) and how Jet-people now roam the C-suites in Walmart’s headquarters. Obviously this goal is not for everyone, many acquihires leave once their stock options have matured. But planning your career and taking a short-cut via your own startup and its minimal viable product could definitely become a thing in the next few years (or is it already?).
8. How will we look back on philanthropy?
Philanthropy has become a huge factor, especially in the U.S. But cracks are starting to show. Bill Callahan was the first to bundle the criticism in his book “The Givers” last year, this summer Anand Giriharadas showed the Davos-set his middle-finger with “Winners Take All - The Elite Charade of Changing the World”. Now it is Robert Reich’s turn, former Secretary of Labor and personification of old Democratic policies. He recently published “Just Giving - Why Philanthropy Is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better”. Well, you get the pattern, and to me this criticism deeply resonates: It’s tempting to bypass dysfunctional institutions to solve problems that you care about… but doesn’t this resemble the famous “just let a startup take care of it?” technology solutionism we’ve become weary of? Sure, there are different breeds of philanthropy, but spending multimillions on pet-projects, getting a tax break for it and still being able to come out richer than before because no work is paid as generously as letting massive amounts of capital work for you… this all seems like a bad deal.
9. Are politics becoming our new religion?
In the case of the United States, Andrew Sullivan seems to think so. Inspired by John Gray’s recent book he makes the argument that the current tribalism is a substitute for religion, and that it has therefore become full of orthodoxies. There has already been some pushback against him, especially against his portrait of America’s political past as tribe- and harmless.
What I like about Sullivan is his ability to annoy both progressives and reactionaries, often in the same paragraph. In doing that, he often nails the truth. Sometimes, he is just a hammer looking for a nail. In this case, he oversimplifies. But of course Sullivan is articulating an old observation (that I blogged about some time ago): Enlightened mankind is stuck halfway between Jerusalem (religion and ideology) and Athens (reason). No way back to the metaphysics and utopias of Jerusalem, but Athens offers no transcendence or even a fundament, just further rational doubt. Thus if politics is becoming our new religion, we might be up for some serious disappointment.
10. Is the word “genocide” counterproductive to genocide-prevention?
Closing with a somber reminder: Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur… all these names (and more) are testament of a dark reality. We’ve not been able to prevent genocide since 1945. Not often enough, at least. Philippe Sands, a human rights lawyer, recently suggested a counterintuitive reason to the Economist: Introducing the crime of genocide itself raised the bar for acting. “When the perceived lesser horrors occur, there is no reaction, and when it gets to genocide it is too late.” Besides, it is hard for prosecutors to prove genocidal intent.
Sands proposes a smart fix: Fuse “genocide” with “crimes against humanity” as one general concept for mass atrocities. This would enable earlier deescalation. There is always a question about the political will and the instruments to do so, but a lower bar to act makes sense. The hard part is changing definitions that have been in place for 70 years, especially as in the current political climate there is a risk you will lose more than you bargained for.
That’s it for this episode - thank you for reading. The cover picture is from “Let Go”, a science fiction graphic novel I can warmly recommend. See you next issue!