“The Future Starts Here: Adventures in the Twenty-First Century” is an unusual book about the future. As a result, it is refreshing. The book and reminds me of “The end of absence” by Bill Bryson. It is an unusual book about the future. As a result, it is refreshing. Our youth will set us free.
We have given up on the future
He starts with the premise that at some point in the 1980s we gave up on the future. When we look ahead now, we tell dystopian stories of environmental collapse, zombie plagues and the end of civilisation. As far as he can tell, the last attempt at a utopian future in a mainstream Hollywood film was the 1989 comedy Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. That was a future described as being fairly similar to now, but with better waterslides. Even dystopias that were intended as jokes have come to seem horribly prophetic. In the same year as Bill and Ted, the film Back to the Future II took us forward 30 years and showed us a broken-down future which was violent, divided and ruled over by a moronic billionaire inspired by Donald Trump. Go figure.
Movies have since then predicted pandemics. Go figure. Climate disasters. Go figure. And extermination by aliens, AI or robots. You need to be careful what you wish for if you believe in the philosophy of “Ask, and it will be given” (I am serious!). . He calls to corrosive pessimism. We have gone from Gene Roddenberry to Quentin Tarantino.
What’s needed is pragmatic optimism. There is a lot of good news. You just don’t see it, which says more about your perception, than it says about reality. For example, in July 2018, the accountancy firm PwC put out an updated report saying that while AI and robotics will displace up to 7 million UK jobs before 2037, it will also create another 7.2 million jobs, giving a net gain of 200,000. This report received considerably less attention in the media than the earlier, more pessimistic ones.
Lots of fantastic nuggets
The book is full of great observations:
- The privacy problem is really a trust problem; it’s that we don’t trust these companies with our data.
- The thing with AI recommendation engines is that they are always going to draw you towards the norm. Recommendation algorithms drag us all to the centre, to the bland and the safe.
- In theory, the algorithm is designed to help humans, but what’s actually happening is that humans are bending over backwards to help the algorithm (he uses fitness trackers as an example).
- If octopuses have been able to evolve a form of consciousness, completely independently from humans, then consciousness is not a miraculous, uniquely human attribute. That makes the notion of computers developing it more plausible.
- Henry Markram at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne argued that our brains create complex but ephemeral structures in at least seven dimensions when we remember, learn and think and that consciousness may be ‘a shadow projection from higher-dimensional representations’.
- Dataism is adopting an increasingly skewed view of life which disregards aspects of existence not relevant to data processing.
- Faith in data grows in relation to your distance from the collection of it. A statistic always sounds more convincing the less you know about where it came from.
- Each of us lived in our own ‘reality tunnel’. As he defined it, your reality tunnel is not reality. It is what you think reality is. Data that AI is fed with are that AI’s equivalent of another reality tunnel.
- There is an effect known as the ‘decline effect’, which claims that the strength of scientific effects declines in a linear fashion after the excitement of an initial discovery, particularly in fields such as medicine, ecology and psychology.
- It’s interesting to speculate how our relationships with AI assistants would change if they became visible digital spirits.
- It is telling that there is a word for the fear of losing your phone – nomophobia, but there is no word for fear of losing your wallet.
- That advertisers’ psychological manipulation can cause harm has long been understood, but there have not been any significant campaigns to prevent the psychological pollution it creates.
- By using data from the last fifty years, it is calculated that if you left your child outside your home unattended, statistically it’d take an average of ten thousand years before they were abducted.
- Videogames are not as harmful as social media.
- The average Briton used 15.1 metric tonnes of material per person in 2001, but by 2013 that had reduced by almost a third to 10.3 metric tonnes, and the trend looks set to continue.
His chapter about millennials, using the 985 John Hughes teen movie The Breakfast Club is priceless. We non-millennials have a lot to learn from millennials and generation Z and G about bravery and emotional and empathic awareness.
He is worried about AR and VR
His perspective on AR and VR is interesting. Read op on Sinner boxes. They are morally indefensible. Imprinting. And once you know how imprinting works, you can make people believe anything. VR is very, very dangerous.
Wherever you are in that virtual space and time, wherever you’re looking, what you’re doing, who you were looking at, who you were involved with, who you were online with, your speech patterns, what time of day it was – all of that is marketable information that they can sell on to data analytic companies who can then put you in a category and understand how you’re going to behave, understand your beliefs and interactions, and then they can market to you perfectly with a pop-up advert in VR that’s tailored to you alone. That’s the Facebook business model. That’s a Skinner box.
He offers a solution to tackle climate change. It is called Half-Earth. The idea is that half the world is used and exploited by humans, while the other half is given back to nature. 2014 report by Rewilding Europe claims that, by 2030, more than 116,000 square miles of farmland will be abandoned, which is 5 million hectares larger than the size of Britain, and that by 2020 four out of five Europeans will be living in urban areas. The Half-Earth idea is appealing because it rewrites the narrative of conservation, turning it from a tragedy to a quest.
He talks about universal basic income. Using the millennials as the frame. In the medieval world, the question that drove us was ‘How can I be saved?’ The shift to a more material, scientific world changed that question to ‘How can I be happy?’ What seems to be driving millennials is the question ‘How can I be enthused?’.
Millennials and Generation Z are increasingly likely to find themselves in the insecure gig economy rather than the steady, stable careers with good pensions that Baby Boomers enjoyed. A 2015 YouGov poll found that 37 per cent of British workers think that their job does not make a meaningful contribution to the world, and a 2013 Harvard Business Review survey of 12,000 professionals found that half thought their job had no ‘meaning and significance’.
Three-quarters of the jobs in the developed world are in admin or the service industries, and these are considerably less likely to provide you with a reason to get out of bed each morning. On the other hand, pretty much anything that starts out as a hobby has the potential to be explored on a much deeper level, if we have the time to dedicate to it. Currently, when we feel drawn to pursuing a goal or exploring a hobby further, we are usually prevented from doing so by the need to keep paying the rent.
At the moment, after the rise of nationalist populism which led to Brexit and Trump, and which is heavily skewed towards older generations, we are witnessing the twentieth-century world view lashing out and trying to save itself from coming change. This is the last stand of the individualistic, fundamentalist, single-vision philosophy, which calls for walls and isolation like Canute ordering back the waves. The young are watching all this play out. They do not see anything that appeals. They are certainly not seeing anything that works.
According to a major global survey funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, young people are more optimistic about the future than adults in every country. That is good news. In 1957, the American psychobiologist Curt Richter performed a cruel experiment in which he left rats to drown in containers half-filled with water. He then reran the experiment and briefly rescued the rats at the point when they gave up swimming, before putting them back in the water. These rats went on swimming an amazing 240 times longer than the original rats. Once it is known that there is hope, people seize on this and keep fighting.
There is a shift coming, from valuing possessions to valuing skills, to connections and experiences, and it fits nicely with the more empathetic, emotional values of the young. Millennials and generation Z and G could yet safe us all.