Over the course of Saturday 7/25 and Sunday 7/26, the World Future 2015 Conference held a multitude of sessions each designated to the category of Innovation and Technology, Business Foresight, Global Issues, Practicum, Authors, Making the Future Hall, Millennial and Youth Activities, or Featured. There were sessions from each running in parallel throughout the weekend, and the only downside was that this meant participants could not possibly make it to each one on their list. Personally, I wished I could have made it to the interactive game session where one could learn about and play The Thing From the Future or participate in an exercise to Update Your Mental Evolution.
In this post, I’m going to recap some particularly interesting highlights from the sessions that I attended. Specifically, I am going over the following sessions (in case you want to skip over to a specific one):
- “Moving Beyond Millennials”
- “News in a Network Society: The Future of Media”
- “Futures of the Forest: When Wood Goes Nano”
- “Artificial Intelligence, Robots, & the Future of Jobs”
Erica Orange and Jared Weiner, of The Future Hunters, preach that we need to update our perception of what constitutes a generation of people. They say that “templosion”, or the exponential implosion of “big” time into smaller and smaller chunks, means that we need to reevaluate how we define our timelines. Given the rate at which our technology is changing coupled with the intensity with which technology changes the human experience, it makes more sense to define coming generations in spans of 2-3 years.
So what do you call the generation following the Millennials? Apparently, we’re going with “Cybrids” (or if you want to be boring you can go with “Gen-Z”); not quite machine enough to be cyborgs but dependent on technology enough to be considered a hybrid of humans and cyborgs. Specifically, these are people born as early as 1997, who have spent most of their formative years integrated with technology.
This symbiotic relationship with tech holds a lot of implications for the Cybrids. They are typically well-educated, but they place a lesser value on higher education. Cybrids are extremely community oriented, and they are more tolerant and accepting than Millennials. They are “eager to build a better planet.” They are financially prudent, and show a decreased amount of brand loyalty. Having lived half-online all their lives, they are more drawn to incognito outlets (e.g. “Don’t post that to Facebook! My mom will see it! Oh, Instagram is fine.”). They expect privacy from products and they trust where their data is going. They are particularly collaborative, and highly entrepreneurial. In fact, studies have shown that while 62% of US high school students aspire to work for themselves, the Millennial generation includes some of (recent) history’s lowest rates of entrepreneurial drive due to high student loan debts and risk aversion learned from emerging into the world in the wake of the Great Recession. Apparently this drop is largely due to a set of Millennials who are currently 25-26 years old (born in 1989 or 1990) and show a particularly low probability of choosing to start their own business.
In general, we are seeing a movement towards a “non-linear life trajectory”, where traditional life stages blur together and become multilayered. Young adults are “staying children longer”, and children are growing up faster. Millennials are reaching top positions extremely quickly, and even managing people up to 40 years older than them. We will likely see Cybrids ascend the corporate structure even faster.
While we are becoming a more collaborative society, we are gravitating towards “mesh networks” (small, interconnected networks off the gird). Communication is becoming denser, allowing for shorter, quicker bits of content to circulate. In the 90s we saw the rise of the blogosphere and long-form posts, and in the 00s we saw the micro-blogosphere emerge with tools like Twitter and SMS facilitating small messages. Today, communication is largely dependent on images, videos, and symbols. People want information efficient enough to allow them to digest as much content as possible in short time ranges.
This trend lends itself to the theory that younger generations are essentially growing new brains - especially Cybrids. We tend to label the behavior of younger generations with terms like “short attention span”, but it is not actually a defect - it is a mis-match of communication. Younger people have been conditioned to process information differently, allowing them to access and consume more information than was previously possible. Rather than condemning this difference, organizations should embrace it and look for the potential of where this method of consumption and communication can benefit us.
The long-revered saying, “The news is what I say it is” (David Brinkley), is no longer true. Society is moving towards a collaborative, open-sourced community-driven style, and this is reflective in news outlets as well. Technology has made us more aware of what is going on outside of our immediate communities, and we are seeking updates and opinions from others who are not intrinsically in positions that often dictate the news. People are now the producers of news, providing first-hand accounts, cellphone videos, and records.
So now the popular saying might need to be updated...
While we are becoming more connected and collaborative, there are also side-effects that do the exact opposite. People often don’t know their neighbors, but they have thousands of Facebook friends. More importantly, we are “cocooning” or clustering around like-minded individuals. We are shouting into a void of people who either 100% agree with when we converse in a like-minded space, or causing more shouting matches than constructive discussion when we enter a dissimilar cluster. This “Foxification of [the] news” is a major problem that new media companies need to address.
These issues will grow increasingly troublesome in cities as they become more and more overpopulated. One theory is that utilizing “hyperlocalized” new organizations is the answer. If larger news organizations manage to confederate them and bring them to a larger audience, then we can reap the benefits of those more personal accounts on a larger and more meaningful scale.
Okay, but then how does decreased travel time brought on by future transportation innovations affect this? What is local news if I live in NYC but commute to work everyday in SF? The answer here likely lies in personalization, where a person may get news specifically pertaining to locations and fields of interest that are most prevalent in their lives at any given moment. So in my future multi-costal existence, I might get weather updates for both NYC and SF, travel delays for my super-fast vehicular commute, Foursquare-of-the-future’s recommendations and check-ins for both domains, and breaking news for both cities and each area I must deal with in between.
We are also seeing the potential for the future of news to be robotic, where the news is being written by algorithms. There is the distinct possibility that Google, or quite possibly some unforeseeable dominant alternative, will simply aggregate information from people and machines (e.g. drones) all over the world into a convenient news feed for us. Our robotic news reporters of the future may even incorporate some programmed or learned personality into their posts. Or maybe our updates will be thrown together on the fly, where we see a list of short news snippets and our robotic overlords seemingly instantaneously throw together a long-form post when we casually tap our finger on a particularly interesting bit.
Another notable trend in the news is ubiquity - “our news will always go with us.” As we experience more technological symbiosis with products like wearables, our updates will be more and more seamless with our daily tasks. Your smart-contact-lenses might overlay a warning message to the top of your vision when there is a flash flood warning. Your Amazon Echo might answer when you casual mumble, “What’s going on in Syria?” You probably won’t have to seek out news updates, they will seek you out.
Session leader, Jerry Edling of CBS Radio, says that moving along with these trends, maybe we need to make an amendment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
Regardless of exactly what future the news has, breakthroughs in this industry have been seen to happen when a new level of empathy is reached. For instance, the first “in-living-room” war, where people could watch coverage of the Vietnam war on their televisions, was pivotal in how aware and invested people became regarding world events. There is a vital difference in seeing a headline about a bombing versus seeing the explosions move across a screen five feet from your eyes. This pattern has continued with the rise of the Internet, and we will likely see the next major breakthrough with technology like VR and holograms. If you thought it was intense to watch videos of a war on your screen, imagine how intense it will be to walk through the battlefield with your new Oculus Rift. The news is about information gathering, it is about communicating a message, it is about instilling something meaningful in those consuming it. As technology develops further, news organizations everywhere will have increasingly exciting pathways to doing these things better than we have ever seen before.
While this session was not directly related to my field of work, it was incredibly interesting and provided some great general food for though. It focused on cellulose nanomaterials, but at its core were fundamental futurist principals.
Cellulose nanomaterials are low-cost, renewable, biodegradable, high-performance materials that could be used for a wide range of applications, such as plastics alternatives and flexible electronics. Cellulose, the most abundant polymer on earth, is sustainable, non-toxic, compostable, biodegradable, and it stores carbon. It is extremely strong, light weight, low cost, and derived from nature. The use of this technology could ultimately help to transition society towards the use of renewable, carbon neutral resources.
Using this topic as a theme, session leaders Jim Dator, Aubrey Lee, and Mike Dockry, walked us through several concepts in futurism (some of this might sound familiar if you read through Part 2 on the masterclass). The most notable one was on the the 4 archetypes that help us get past the present:
(1) Continued growth - How people anticipate their society’s future and how we would grow towards that.
(2) Collapse - Systems as we know them will likely give way, which may be viewed as positive or negative.
(3) Discipline - We avoid collapse by adapting or becoming more conservative with our resources.
(4) Transformative - Some technology or spiritual revolution may change things so much that we cannot currently comprehend what would exist.
One of the final sessions of the conference (several were running in parallel) was so crowded that I ended up sitting on the floor in front of the first row of seat-tables - and I rather enjoyed that about 10 other Youths at the conference followed suit. In this session, Janna Anderson of Elon University discussed the very hot topic of AI and its future implications. (If you would like to see the full slideshow that she used for her presentation, you can download it here: http://buit.ly/1eqMCQz.)
There are plenty of field experts who outline the dire risks of a super-intelligent AI, and there also many who are more optimistic about that future. Some notable quotes from our experts:
Although there is an overwhelmingly heavy amount of negativity around the predictions for the future of AI, there is also a lot of incredible potential for improvement. Having people on both sides of the outlook spectrum, and in between, is important for achieving desirable results. The pessimistic futurist ensure that we realize the risks of what we are building, while the optimistic futurists push us to strive towards an enhanced existence. According to Anderson, the most important things we can do now are:
(1) Immediately identify and begin implementing workable solutions.
(2) Concentrate more significant resources on better understanding potential impacts of our ever-more-complex, fast-evolving human-machine systems, focusing more energy on pre-testing changes before fully engaging in them.
This is where futurism comes in. Strategic foresight and scenarios thinking are imperative in this stage of development. As our society becomes more machine-driven, what are the non-immediate and indirect impacts? Will companies that depend on human consumers flounder if they replace their employees with machines? If HR becomes entirely algorithmic, will it favor more robot-like attributes or develop biases? If out robot overlords will happily pick up all of our work and allow us to live in a utopia, what will we spend out time doing? If AI allows humans to become immortal, how will we deal with overpopulation? The point is that no one can truly predict what ASI will bring us, but we are at a point where our decisions can shape the outcome.
Anderson points out that our own pessimism might be what brings our downfall. If we only allow ourselves to see the risks and dangers associated with creating a super-intelligence, that is all that we will allow ourselves to create. She says that this could even be from simple storytelling - a future ASI might look at our very pessimistic set of big-screen movies and dystopian novels and discern that this is what humans wanted or that we are too threatening to their survival if we have been planning for a war with them. Realizing the risks is undoubtably important, but outlining the benefits is just as crucial if we want to avoid those risks.
The best way to approach such a complex problem is to view it as objectively as possible. Define what the parameters are, and what the potential issues will be, and propose solutions that we can act on. For example, in this discussion of how AI will impact the future of jobs, there are clear trends towards a blurred line between human life and technology - everything we interact with being built on code and forming an increasing dependency on machines. With this issue, it can be concluded that our solution must work to advance the rights of the individual as our networks become more complex, intertwined, and overseen by a small portion of society. Simply put, “we can’t wait around and see what happens.”
Foresight is a major tool allowing us to combat the increasing speed and complexity with which our world is changing, for every field of work and every life. While right now issues like ASI might seem far away from one’s current domain, there will be a direct impact on every aspect of humanity. So how will AI affect the news and media? We touched on this in the above section on the “News in a Network Society” talk - the news could become entirely machine run and algorithmically automated. If we tie that into the dangers of ASI presented in this talk, that could mean that our news becomes skewed against what any human would approve of, allowing a machine to manipulate our level of awareness and therefore our actions. We would need to consider how we will define objectivity, free speech, and what being “human” truly means. If we got to a point where AI is forming its own opinions and presenting the news as such, would that really be all that different from what we do now as human reporters? What would make that case scornful where human bias is ignored or even celebrated? As Mitch Kapor and John Perry, founders of The Electronic Frontier Foundation, put it:
What is free speech and what is merely data? What is a free press without paper and ink? What is a ‘place’ in the world without tangible dimensions? How does one protect property which has no physical form and can be infinitely and easily reproduced? …Can anyone morally own knowledge itself?
Or as AI/robotics researcher Rodney Brooks has said:
There will be an alteration of our view of ourselves as a species; we will begin to see ourselves as simply part of the infrastructure of industry. While all the scientific and technical work proceeds, we will again be confronted with the same constellation of disturbing questions: What is it to be alive? What makes something ‘human’? What makes something ‘subhuman’? What is a superhuman? What changes can we accept in humanity?