Kirk Klasson

Hacking the Future 2.0……

Ahhh, a brand new year and I predict there will be predictions…

Well it’s that time of year, once again the Consumer Electronics Show is in full swing and suddenly the Jetsons are once again in vogue. The year was 1962. And suddenly in prime time, a newly discovered advertising interval, from the miasma of deep space, a tiny dot appears, and as it grows closer our own blue marble, the earth, comes into view, an image which would not be photographically available for another seven years, but wait, it’s not our home but rather one inhabited by none other than our future selves… the Jetsons. Driverless, flying cars, robot domestic servants, floating skyscrapers and talking dogs. The only thing totally familiar about the Jetsons were the characters themselves whose foibles we recognized immediately and embraced as our own. Today, their invocation as an accurate prediction of the nearing horizon of our own technological condition is at once nostalgic, optimistic and perplexing.

But these feelings beg a larger question: did we come by our current technological circumstances on our own or did we arrive here by dint of the Jetson’s suggestion? Was it a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy? Are we some how genetically predisposed to surround ourselves with gadgets and infuse them with our own sensibilities or is this merely a latent fanciful notion that we have carried with us and unconsciously sought to execute since 1962?

After all, fins on vehicles might eventually prove aerodynamically useful.

The Origins and Nature of Change

Betting on the future is big business. Ask any practicing trader or strategist and they would readily acknowledge that the slightest future insight properly exploited could yield tremendous downstream advantage. This of course assumes a couple of things. First, that a genuine insight concerning the future can reliably be recognized before it occurs and next that there is a future state where that knowledge can be taken advantage of by actions taken before the future arrives. Slippery stuff but given that the payoff can be enormous the incentive to realize a newly conceived future in a proprietary manner is immeasurably enticing. Just ask any venture capitalist, assuming you can get to one.

Whittled down, change is basically a perceivable alteration, interruption or cessation of continuity. Ahhh, so where does continuity come from? Well, that’s easy. It springs from the ability of sentient beings whose physical persistence provides for the conscious perception of and subscription to a conceptual synthetic continuum commonly known as time. (Please see Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason 1781 and Spooky Action at a Distance – February 2011, not applicable to all phenomena and void where prohibited)

So within this framework there are really two basic types of change that are directly related to human innovation. There are those that are continuous and thus incremental and those that are discontinuous or of sufficient significance to become rule changing and context altering. It’s a bit of a sliding scale but you might want to think of it as the difference between softer bathroom tissue, better gas mileage and clever kitchen gadgets on one end and the transistor, gene splicing and the weaponization of quantum particles on the other. Recently, some futurists have dubbed this latter category singularities; changes of such enormous consequence with respect to established rules and context that their magnitude is difficult if not impossible to comprehend and potentially impossible to master and control.

Interestingly, continuous change and innovation seems to adhere to the established laws of natural selection. The utility or usefulness of any given innovation no matter how latent in large part determines its success and longevity. Driverless cars, with or without fins, may be cool but do they have lasting utility? Any innovation can succeed momentarily within the context and with the support of what is currently deemed fashionable. The current gaming craze is a good example. Farmville, Angry Birds, Candy Crush have all had their moment. But the zeitgeist can be fickle. Lasting ideas and innovation are subject to their own form of natural selection and competition. Without any underlying utility that favorably influences the welfare and sustainability of the environment into which it has been introduced or the welfare of the constituents whose well-being depends upon it, innovations just won’t last. Nature may abhor a vacuum but it has little patience for frivolous hipsters as well.

However, the same cannot be said for discontinuous innovations and change. Originally popularized by Ray Kruzweil’s 2005 book entitled The Singularity is Near, where the human race abandons it biological instantiation and continues as technological phantoms, the idea of a single innovation, a singularity, so cataclysmic that it would obliterate our past as well as the continuity of our future constitutes a daunting and disturbing vision. But this isn’t the only instance of such an event that comes to mind.

Since its publication, several futurists have argued that the possibility of this event actually occurring remains remote, however, the probability of this future, along with several other futures, occurring sometime within the current century is steadily increasing, not necessarily because the ability to conceive of such futures has become easier but rather because the path to their realization has become increasingly plausible.

This is due in no smaller measure to the availability and democratization of information such as open sourced models of the human genome and quantum dynamics but along with it the tools that allow for the manipulation of that information to achieve novel incarnations of unpredictable, untestable, purpose-built innovations. You don’t have to pull on this thread too long to find a potential disaster at the end of it. A man-made virus cobbled together in a hobbyist’s lab ends in an unstoppable, world-wide, fatal contagion. A PhD candidate tweaks a CERN experiment and annihilates a sizable portion of the French countryside. Some late night hackathon brings down the west coast power grid during a momentary but monumental “oops”. The list goes on but what makes it disconcerting is not the possibility of these potential futures but the realization that the means to these ends are increasingly obvious and ubiquitous.

What’s the worst that could happen?

Hacking may not have officially made it into the dictionary this year but it has become such a pedestrian feature of the common vernacular that its entry can’t be far off. Everyday we hear of recipe hacks, fashion hacks, exercise hacks, and music hacks. The list is endless and its meaning increasingly understood. Fundamentally, hacking is used to describe the intentional break-in, either public or surreptitious, to existing conventions to alter or interrupt the outcome of previously established routines, looks, sounds, etc. Given that more and more of our existence has been tokenized as digital facsimiles of tangible reality, it’s easy to see why hacking has become a convenient way to describe the manipulation of our information-based environment and society.

So it might not be inappropriate to suggest that by virtue of our own ability to manipulate information we could consciously or unconsciously influence the flow or character of events to alter our future. Sort of like how the Jetsons put it in our heads to create robots. It might not even be too far fetched to suggest that if we could manipulate information in such a fashion, something that we invented might be able to do it equally as well. Maybe even better.

Recently, the Future of Life Institute, an organization founded in 2014 and apparently dedicated to the successful future of human kind, published an open letter, signed by a host of luminaries, voicing their concern over the future of Artificial Intelligence (AI). While praising the possibility that AI has the potential to enhance the human condition it let it leak, in a kind of, “oh, by the way”, moment, that more research must be completed to ensure that “our…systems must do what we want them to do”, obviously implying that, indeed, they may not.

Now what could possibly be more benign and more beneficial than a highly distributed, autonomous, self-replicating, evolving, machine-based intelligence that could write and launch code faster than, say, Skynet?

I mean, what’s the worst that could happen?

Klaatu barada nikto

Imagination has always been and will continue to be a source of inspiration when it comes to how we go about fashioning our future.  After all, where would we be without the Isaac Azimovs, Robert Heinleins and Arthur C. Clarks of the world? Difficult to imagine at the time it aired, but from our current perspective, nearly all if the innovation originally conceived of in the Jetsons was of the incremental, continuous variety. Even George Jetson’s work computer, that’s right he had one, was called RUDI, short for Referential Universal Digital Indexer, and how far is that from our own URL or Universal Resource Locator which, through indexing, is how you actually arrived at this blog post.

It remains for us to determine which way is the best way forward. We can as many have asserted best predict the future by inventing it or perhaps, more presciently, as Hanna – Barbera seems to have suggested, better perfect the future by predicting it.

But we are nearing a moment, a vanishing point, where even the most optimistic and altruistic of intentions could unleash the most devastating and life ending innovations and increasingly it is likely that should this occur it won’t emerge from some enigmatic flying saucer bearing a robot sporting a death ray visor, instead, our finger prints will likely be all over it.

Which may be the last thing they ever touch.

Image courtesy of Hanna-Barbera Productions

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