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It’s hard to avoid the prominence of AI in our lives, and there is a plethora of predictions about how it will influence our future. In their new book Solomon’s Code: Humanity in a World of Thinking Machines, co-authors Olaf Groth, Professor of Strategy, Innovation and Economics at HULT International Business School and CEO of advisory network Cambrian.ai, and Mark Nitzberg, Executive Director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Human-Compatible AI, believe that the shift in balance of power between intelligent machines and humans is already here.
I caught up with the authors about how the continued integration between technology and humans, and their call for a “Digital Magna Carta,” a broadly-accepted charter developed by a multi-stakeholder congress that would help guide the development of advanced technologies to harness their power for the benefit of all humanity.
Lisa Kay Solomon: Your new book, Solomon’s Code, explores artificial intelligence and its broader human, ethical, and societal implications that all leaders need to consider. AI is a technology that’s been in development for decades. Why is it so urgent to focus on these topics now?
Olaf Groth and Mark Nitzberg: Popular perception always thinks of AI in terms of game-changing narratives—for instance, Deep Blue beating Gary Kasparov at chess. But it’s the way these AI applications are “getting into our heads” and making decisions for us that really influences our lives. That’s not to say the big, headline-grabbing breakthroughs aren’t important; they are.
But it’s the proliferation of prosaic apps and bots that changes our lives the most, by either empowering or counteracting who we are and what we do. Today, we turn a rapidly growing number of our decisions over to these machines, often without knowing it—and even more often without understanding the second- and third-order effects of both the technologies and our decisions to rely on them.
There is genuine power in what we call a “symbio-intelligent” partnership between human, machine, and natural intelligences. These relationships can optimize not just economic interests, but help improve human well-being, create a more purposeful workplace, and bring more fulfillment to our lives.
However, mitigating the risks while taking advantage of the opportunities will require a serious, multidisciplinary consideration of how AI influences human values, trust, and power relationships. Whether or not we acknowledge their existence in our everyday life, these questions are no longer just thought exercises or fodder for science fiction.
In many ways, these technologies can challenge what it means to be human, and their ramifications already affect us in real and often subtle ways. We need to understand how
LKS: There is a lot of hype and misconceptions about AI. In your book, you provide a useful distinction between the cognitive capability that we often associate with AI processes, and the more human elements of consciousness and conscience. Why are these distinctions so important to understand?
OG & MN: Could machines take over consciousness some day as they become more powerful and complex? It’s hard to say. But there’s little doubt that, as machines become more capable, humans will start to think of them as something conscious—if for no other reason than our natural inclination to anthropomorphize.
Machines are already learning to recognize our emotional states and our physical health. Once they start talking that back to us and adjusting their behavior accordingly, we will be tempted to develop a certain rapport with them, potentially more trusting or more intimate because the machine recognizes us in our various states.
Consciousness is hard to define and may well be an emergent property, rather than something you can easily create or—in turn—deduce to its parts. So, could it happen as we put more and more elements together, from the realms of AI, quantum computing, or brain-computer interfaces? We can’t exclude that possibility.
Either way, we need to make sure we’re charting out a clear path and guardrails for this development through the Three Cs in machines: cognition (where AI is today); consciousness (where AI could go); and conscience (what we need to instill in AI before we get there). The real concern is that we reach machine consciousness—or what humans decide to grant as consciousness—without a conscience. If that happens, we will have created an artificial sociopath.
LKS: We have been seeing major developments in how AI is influencing product development and industry shifts. How is the rise of AI changing power at the global level?
OG & MN: Both in the public and private sectors, the data holder has the power. We’ve already seen the ascendance of about 10 “digital barons” in the US and China who sit on huge troves of data, massive computing power, and the resources and money to attract the world’s top AI talent. With these gaps already open between the haves and the have-nots on the technological and corporate side, we’re becoming increasingly aware that similar inequalities are forming at a societal level as well.
Economic power flows with data, leaving few options for socio-economically underprivileged populations and their corrupt, biased, or sparse digital footprints. By concentrating power and overlooking values, we fracture trust.
We can already see this tension emerging between the two dominant geopolitical models of AI. China and the US have emerged as the most powerful in both technological and economic terms, and both remain eager to drive that influence around the world. The EU countries are more contained on these economic and geopolitical measures, but they’ve leaped ahead on privacy and social concerns.
The problem is, no one has yet combined leadership on all three critical elements of values, trust, and power. The nations and organizations that foster all three of these elements in their AI systems and strategies will lead the future. Some are starting to recognize the need for the combination, but we found just 13 countries that have created significant AI strategies. Countries that wait too long to join them risk subjecting themselves to a new “data colonialism” that could change their economies and societies from the outside.
LKS: Solomon’s Code looks at AI from a variety of perspectives, considering both positive and potentially dangerous effects. You caution against the rising global threat and weaponization of AI and data, suggesting that “biased or dirty data is more threatening than nuclear arms or a pandemic.” For global leaders, entrepreneurs, technologists, policy makers and social change agents reading this, what specific strategies do you recommend to ensure ethical development and application of AI?
OG & MN: We’ve surrendered many of our most critical decisions to the Cult of Data. In most cases, that’s a great thing, as we rely more on scientific evidence to understand our world and our way through it. But we swing too far in other instances, assuming that datasets and algorithms produce a complete story that’s unsullied by human biases or intellectual shortcomings. We might choose to ignore it, but no one is blind to the dangers of nuclear war or pandemic disease. Yet, we willfully blind ourselves to the threat of dirty data, instead believing it to be pristine.
So, what do we do about it? On an individual level, it’s a matter of awareness, knowing who controls your data and how outsourcing of decisions to thinking machines can present opportunities and threats alike.
For business, government, and political leaders, we need to see a much broader expansion of ethics committees with transparent criteria with which to evaluate new products and services. We might consider something akin to clinical trials for pharmaceuticals—a sort of testing scheme that can transparently and independently measure the effects on humans of algorithms, bots, and the like. All of this needs to be multidisciplinary, bringing in expertise from across technology, social systems, ethics, anthropology, psychology, and so on.
Finally, on a global level, we need a new charter of rights—a Digital Magna Carta—that formalizes these protections and guides the development of new AI technologies toward all of humanity’s benefit. We’ve suggested the creation of a multi-stakeholder Cambrian Congress (harkening back to the explosion of life during the Cambrian period) that can not only begin to frame benefits for humanity, but build the global consensus around principles for a basic code-of-conduct, and ideas for evaluation and enforcement mechanisms, so we can get there without any large-scale failures or backlash in society. So, it’s not one or the other—it’s both.
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Development across the entire information technology landscape certainly didn’t slow down this year. From CRISPR babies, to the rapid decline of the crypto markets, to a new robot on Mars, and discovery of subatomic particles that could change modern physics as we know it, there was no shortage of headline-grabbing breakthroughs and discoveries.
As 2018 comes to a close, we can pause and reflect on some of the biggest technology breakthroughs and scientific discoveries that occurred this year.
I reached out to a few Singularity University speakers and faculty across the various technology domains we cover asking what they thought the biggest breakthrough was in their area of expertise. The question posed was:
“What, in your opinion, was the biggest development in your area of focus this year? Or, what was the breakthrough you were most surprised by in 2018?”
I can share that for me, hands down, the most surprising development I came across in 2018 was learning that a publicly-traded company that was briefly valued at over $1 billion, and has over 12,000 employees and contractors spread around the world, has no physical office space and the entire business is run and operated from inside an online virtual world. This is Ready Player One stuff happening now.
For the rest, here’s what our experts had to say.
Dr. Tiffany Vora | Faculty Director and Vice Chair, Digital Biology and Medicine, Singularity University
“That’s easy: CRISPR babies. I knew it was technically possible, and I’ve spent two years predicting it would happen first in China. I knew it was just a matter of time but I failed to predict the lack of oversight, the dubious consent process, the paucity of publicly-available data, and the targeting of a disease that we already know how to prevent and treat and that the children were at low risk of anyway.
I’m not convinced that this counts as a technical breakthrough, since one of the girls probably isn’t immune to HIV, but it sure was a surprise.”
For more, read Dr. Vora’s summary of this recent stunning news from China regarding CRISPR-editing human embryos.
Andrew Fursman | Co-Founder/CEO 1Qbit, Faculty, Quantum Computing, Singularity University
“There were two last-minute holiday season surprise quantum computing funding and technology breakthroughs:
First, right before the government shutdown, one priority legislative accomplishment will provide $1.2 billion in quantum computing research over the next five years. Second, there’s the rise of ions as a truly viable, scalable quantum computing architecture.”
*Read this Gizmodo profile on an exciting startup in the space to learn more about this type of quantum computing
Ramez Naam | Chair, Energy and Environmental Systems, Singularity University
“2018 had plenty of energy surprises. In solar, we saw unsubsidized prices in the sunny parts of the world at just over two cents per kwh, or less than half the price of new coal or gas electricity. In the US southwest and Texas, new solar is also now cheaper than new coal or gas. But even more shockingly, in Germany, which is one of the least sunny countries on earth (it gets less sunlight than Canada) the average bid for new solar in a 2018 auction was less than 5 US cents per kwh. That’s as cheap as new natural gas in the US, and far cheaper than coal, gas, or any other new electricity source in most of Europe.
In fact, it’s now cheaper in some parts of the world to build new solar or wind than to run existing coal plants. Think tank Carbon Tracker calculates that, over the next 10 years, it will become cheaper to build new wind or solar than to operate coal power in most of the world, including specifically the US, most of Europe, and—most importantly—India and the world’s dominant burner of coal, China.
Here comes the sun.”
GLOBAL GRAND CHALLENGES
Darlene Damm | Vice Chair, Faculty, Global Grand Challenges, Singularity University
“In 2018 we saw a lot of areas in the Global Grand Challenges move forward—advancements in robotic farming technology and cultured meat, low-cost 3D printed housing, more sophisticated types of online education expanding to every corner of the world, and governments creating new policies to deal with the ethics of the digital world. These were the areas we were watching and had predicted there would be change.
What most surprised me was to see young people, especially teenagers, start to harness technology in powerful ways and use it as a platform to make their voices heard and drive meaningful change in the world. In 2018 we saw teenagers speak out on a number of issues related to their well-being and launch digital movements around issues such as gun and school safety, global warming and environmental issues. We often talk about the harm technology can cause to young people, but on the flip side, it can be a very powerful tool for youth to start changing the world today and something I hope we see more of in the future.”
Pascal Finette | Chair, Entrepreneurship and Open Innovation, Singularity University
“Without a doubt the rapid and massive adoption of AI, specifically deep learning, across industries, sectors, and organizations. What was a curiosity for most companies at the beginning of the year has quickly made its way into the boardroom and leadership meetings, and all the way down into the innovation and IT department’s agenda. You are hard-pressed to find a mid- to large-sized company today that is not experimenting or implementing AI in various aspects of its business.
On the slightly snarkier side of answering this question: The very rapid decline in interest in blockchain (and cryptocurrencies). The blockchain party was short, ferocious, and ended earlier than most would have anticipated, with a huge hangover for some. The good news—with the hot air dissipated, we can now focus on exploring the unique use cases where blockchain does indeed offer real advantages over centralized approaches.”
*Author note: snark is welcome and appreciated
Hod Lipson | Director, Creative Machines Lab, Columbia University
“The biggest surprise for me this year in robotics was learning dexterity. For decades, roboticists have been trying to understand and imitate dexterous manipulation. We humans seem to be able to manipulate objects with our fingers with incredible ease—imagine sifting through a bunch of keys in the dark, or tossing and catching a cube. And while there has been much progress in machine perception, dexterous manipulation remained elusive.
There seemed to be something almost magical in how we humans can physically manipulate the physical world around us. Decades of research in grasping and manipulation, and millions of dollars spent on robot-hand hardware development, has brought us little progress. But in late 2018, the Berkley OpenAI group demonstrated that this hurdle may finally succumb to machine learning as well. Given 200 years worth of practice, machines learned to manipulate a physical object with amazing fluidity. This might be the beginning of a new age for dexterous robotics.”
Jeremy Howard | Founding Researcher, fast.ai, Founder/CEO, Enlitic, Faculty Data Science, Singularity University
“The biggest development in machine learning this year has been the development of effective natural language processing (NLP).
The New York Times published an article last month titled “Finally, a Machine That Can Finish Your Sentence,” which argued that NLP neural networks have reached a significant milestone in capability and speed of development. The “finishing your sentence” capability mentioned in the title refers to a type of neural network called a “language model,” which is literally a model that learns how to finish your sentences.
Earlier this year, two systems (one, called ELMO, is from the Allen Institute for AI, and the other, called ULMFiT, was developed by me and Sebastian Ruder) showed that such a model could be fine-tuned to dramatically improve the state-of-the-art in nearly every NLP task that researchers study. This work was further developed by OpenAI, which in turn was greatly scaled up by Google Brain, who created a system called BERT which reached human-level performance on some of NLP’s toughest challenges.
Over the next year, expect to see fine-tuned language models used for everything from understanding medical texts to building disruptive social media troll armies.”
Andre Wegner | Founder/CEO Authentise, Chair, Digital Manufacturing, Singularity University
“Most surprising to me was the extent and speed at which the industry finally opened up.
While previously, only few 3D printing suppliers had APIs and knew what to do with them, 2018 saw nearly every OEM (or original equipment manufacturer) enabling data access and, even more surprisingly, shying away from proprietary standards and adopting MTConnect, as stalwarts such as 3D Systems and Stratasys have been. This means that in two to three years, data access to machines will be easy, commonplace, and free. The value will be in what is being done with that data.
Another example of this openness are the seemingly endless announcements of integrated workflows: GE’s announcement with most major software players to enable integrated solutions, EOS’s announcement with Siemens, and many more. It’s clear that all actors in the additive ecosystem have taken a step forward in terms of openness. The result is a faster pace of innovation, particularly in the software and data domains that are crucial to enabling comprehensive digital workflow to drive agile and resilient manufacturing.
I’m more optimistic we’ll achieve that now than I was at the end of 2017.”
SCIENCE AND DISCOVERY
Paul Saffo | Chair, Future Studies, Singularity University, Distinguished Visiting Scholar, Stanford Media-X Research Network
“The most important development in technology this year isn’t a technology, but rather the astonishing science surprises made possible by recent technology innovations. My short list includes the discovery of the “neptmoon”, a Neptune-scale moon circling a Jupiter-scale planet 8,000 lightyears from us; the successful deployment of the Mars InSight Lander a month ago; and the tantalizing ANITA detection (what could be a new subatomic particle which would in turn blow the standard model wide open). The highest use of invention is to support science discovery, because those discoveries in turn lead us to the future innovations that will improve the state of the world—and fire up our imaginations.”
Pablos Holman | Inventor, Hacker, Faculty, Singularity University
“Just five or ten years ago, if you’d asked any of us technologists “What is harder for robots? Eyes, or fingers?” We’d have all said eyes. Robots have extraordinary eyes now, but even in a surgical robot, the fingers are numb and don’t feel anything. Stanford robotics researchers have invented fingertips that can feel, and this will be a kingpin that allows robots to go everywhere they haven’t been yet.”
Nathana Sharma | Blockchain, Policy, Law, and Ethics, Faculty, Singularity University
“2017 was the year of peak blockchain hype. 2018 has been a year of resetting expectations and technological development, even as the broader cryptocurrency markets have faced a winter. It’s now about seeing adoption and applications that people want and need to use rise. An incredible piece of news from December 2018 is that Facebook is developing a cryptocurrency for users to make payments through Whatsapp. That’s surprisingly fast mainstream adoption of this new technology, and indicates how powerful it is.”
Neil Jacobstein | Chair, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, Singularity University
“I think one of the most visible improvements in AI was illustrated by the Boston Dynamics Parkour video. This was not due to an improvement in brushless motors, accelerometers, or gears. It was due to improvements in AI algorithms and training data. To be fair, the video released was cherry-picked from numerous attempts, many of which ended with a crash. However, the fact that it could be accomplished at all in 2018 was a real win for both AI and robotics.”
Divya Chander | Chair, Neuroscience, Singularity University
“2018 ushered in a new era of exponential trends in non-invasive brain modulation. Changing behavior or restoring function takes on a new meaning when invasive interfaces are no longer needed to manipulate neural circuitry. The end of 2018 saw two amazing announcements: the ability to grow neural organoids (mini-brains) in a dish from neural stem cells that started expressing electrical activity, mimicking the brain function of premature babies, and the first (known) application of CRISPR to genetically alter two fetuses grown through IVF. Although this was ostensibly to provide genetic resilience against HIV infections, imagine what would happen if we started tinkering with neural circuitry and intelligence.”
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How we work and play is about to transform.
After a prolonged technology “winter”—or what I like to call the ‘deceptive growth’ phase of any exponential technology—the hardware and software that power virtual (VR) and augmented reality (AR) applications are accelerating at an extraordinary rate.
Unprecedented new applications in almost every industry are exploding onto the scene.
Both VR and AR, combined with artificial intelligence, will significantly disrupt the “middleman” and make our lives “auto-magical.” The implications will touch every aspect of our lives, from education and real estate to healthcare and manufacturing.
The Future of Work
How and where we work is already changing, thanks to exponential technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics.
But virtual and augmented reality are taking the future workplace to an entirely new level.
Virtual Reality Case Study: eXp Realty
I recently interviewed Glenn Sanford, who founded eXp Realty in 2008 (imagine: a real estate company on the heels of the housing market collapse) and is the CEO of eXp World Holdings.
Ten years later, eXp Realty has an army of 14,000 agents across all 50 US states, three Canadian provinces, and 400 MLS market areas… all without a single traditional staffed office.
In a bid to transition from 2D interfaces to immersive, 3D work experiences, virtual platform VirBELA built out the company’s office space in VR, unlocking indefinite scaling potential and an extraordinary new precedent.
Real estate agents, managers, and even clients gather in a unique virtual campus, replete with a sports field, library, and lobby. It’s all accessible via head-mounted displays, but most agents join with a computer browser. Surprisingly, the campus-style setup enables the same type of water-cooler conversations I see every day at the XPRIZE headquarters.
With this centralized VR campus, eXp Realty has essentially thrown out overhead costs and entered a lucrative market without the same constraints of brick-and-mortar businesses.
Delocalize with VR, and you can now hire anyone with internet access (right next door or on the other side of the planet), redesign your corporate office every month, throw in an ocean-view office or impromptu conference room for client meetings, and forget about guzzled-up hours in traffic.
As a leader, what happens when you can scalably expand and connect your workforce, not to mention your customer base, without the excess overhead of office space and furniture? Your organization can run faster and farther than your competition.
But beyond the indefinite scalability achieved through digitizing your workplace, VR’s implications extend to the lives of your employees and even the future of urban planning:
Home Prices: As virtual headquarters and office branches take hold of the 21st-century workplace, those who work on campuses like eXp Realty’s won’t need to commute to work. As a result, VR has the potential to dramatically influence real estate prices—after all, if you don’t need to drive to an office, your home search isn’t limited to a specific set of neighborhoods anymore.
Transportation: In major cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, the implications are tremendous. Analysts have revealed that it’s already cheaper to use ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft than to own a car in many major cities. And once autonomous “Car-as-a-Service” platforms proliferate, associated transportation costs like parking fees, fuel, and auto repairs will no longer fall on the individual, if not entirely disappear.
Augmented Reality: Annotate and Interact with Your Workplace
As I discussed in a recent Spatial Web blog, not only will Web 3.0 and VR advancements allow us to build out virtual worlds, but we’ll soon be able to digitally map our real-world physical offices or entire commercial high-rises.
Enter a professional world electrified by augmented reality.
Our workplaces are practically littered with information. File cabinets abound with archival data and relevant documents, and company databases continue to grow at a breakneck pace. And, as all of us are increasingly aware, cybersecurity and robust data permission systems remain a major concern for CEOs and national security officials alike.
What if we could link that information to specific locations, people, time frames, and even moving objects?
As data gets added and linked to any given employee’s office, conference room, or security system, we might then access online-merge-offline environments and information through augmented reality.
Imagine showing up at your building’s concierge and your AR glasses automatically check you into the building, authenticating your identity and pulling up any reminders you’ve linked to that specific location.
You stop by a friend’s office, and his smart security system lets you know he’ll arrive in an hour. Need to book a public conference room that’s already been scheduled by another firm’s marketing team? Offer to pay them a fee and, once accepted, a smart transaction will automatically deliver a payment to their company account.
With blockchain-verified digital identities, spatially logged data, and virtually manifest information, business logistics take a fraction of the time, operations grow seamless, and corporate data will be safer than ever.
Or better yet, imagine precise and high-dexterity work environments populated with interactive annotations that guide an artisan, surgeon, or engineer through meticulous handiwork.
Take, for instance, AR service 3D4Medical, which annotates virtual anatomy in midair. And as augmented reality hardware continues to advance, we might envision a future wherein surgeons perform operations on annotated organs and magnified incision sites, or one in which quantum computer engineers can magnify and annotate mechanical parts, speeding up reaction times and vastly improving precision.
The Future of Free Time and Play
In Abundance, I wrote about today’s rapidly demonetizing cost of living. In 2011, almost 75 percent of the average American’s income was spent on housing, transportation, food, personal insurance, health, and entertainment. What the headlines don’t mention: this is a dramatic improvement over the last 50 years. We’re spending less on basic necessities and working fewer hours than previous generations.
Chart depicts the average weekly work hours for full-time production employees in non-agricultural activities. Source: Diamandis.com data
Technology continues to change this, continues to take care of us and do our work for us. One phrase that describes this is “technological socialism,” where it’s technology, not the government, that takes care of us.
Extrapolating from the data, I believe we are heading towards a post-scarcity economy. Perhaps we won’t need to work at all, because we’ll own and operate our own fleet of robots or AI systems that do our work for us.
As living expenses demonetize and workplace automation increases, what will we do with this abundance of time? How will our children and grandchildren connect and find their purpose if they don’t have to work for a living?
As I write this on a Saturday afternoon and watch my two seven-year-old boys immersed in Minecraft, building and exploring worlds of their own creation, I can’t help but imagine that this future is about to enter its disruptive phase.
Exponential technologies are enabling a new wave of highly immersive games, virtual worlds, and online communities. We’ve likely all heard of the Oasis from Ready Player One. But far beyond what we know today as ‘gaming,’ VR is fast becoming a home to immersive storytelling, interactive films, and virtual world creation.
Within the virtual world space, let’s take one of today’s greatest precursors, the aforementioned game Minecraft.
For reference, Minecraft is over eight times the size of planet Earth. And in their free time, my kids would rather build in Minecraft than almost any other activity. I think of it as their primary passion: to create worlds, explore worlds, and be challenged in worlds.
And in the near future, we’re all going to become creators of or participants in virtual worlds, each populated with assets and storylines interoperable with other virtual environments.
But while the technological methods are new, this concept has been alive and well for generations. Whether you got lost in the world of Heidi or Harry Potter, grew up reading comic books or watching television, we’ve all been playing in imaginary worlds, with characters and story arcs populating our minds. That’s the nature of childhood.
In the past, however, your ability to edit was limited, especially if a given story came in some form of 2D media. I couldn’t edit where Tom Sawyer was going or change what Iron Man was doing. But as a slew of new software advancements underlying VR and AR allow us to interact with characters and gain (albeit limited) agency (for now), both new and legacy stories will become subjects of our creation and playgrounds for virtual interaction.
Take VR/AR storytelling startup Fable Studio’s Wolves in the Walls film. Debuting at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, Fable’s immersive story is adapted from Neil Gaiman’s book and tracks the protagonist, Lucy, whose programming allows her to respond differently based on what her viewers do.
And while Lucy can merely hand virtual cameras to her viewers among other limited tasks, Fable Studio’s founder Edward Saatchi sees this project as just the beginning.
Imagine a virtual character—either in augmented or virtual reality—geared with AI capabilities, that now can not only participate in a fictional storyline but interact and dialogue directly with you in a host of virtual and digitally overlayed environments.
Or imagine engaging with a less-structured environment, like the Star Wars cantina, populated with strangers and friends to provide an entirely novel social media experience.
Already, we’ve seen characters like that of Pokémon brought into the real world with Pokémon Go, populating cities and real spaces with holograms and tasks. And just as augmented reality has the power to turn our physical environments into digital gaming platforms, advanced AR could bring on a new era of in-home entertainment.
Imagine transforming your home into a narrative environment for your kids or overlaying your office interior design with Picasso paintings and gothic architecture. As computer vision rapidly grows capable of identifying objects and mapping virtual overlays atop them, we might also one day be able to project home theaters or live sports within our homes, broadcasting full holograms that allow us to zoom into the action and place ourselves within it.
Increasingly honed and commercialized, augmented and virtual reality are on the cusp of revolutionizing the way we play, tell stories, create worlds, and interact with both fictional characters and each other.
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A digital afterlife may soon be within reach, but it might not be for your benefit.
The reams of data we’re creating could soon make it possible to create digital avatars that live on after we die, aimed at comforting our loved ones or sharing our experience with future generations.
That may seem like a disappointing downgrade from the vision promised by the more optimistic futurists, where we upload our consciousness to the cloud and live forever in machines. But it might be a realistic possibility in the not-too-distant future—and the first steps have already been taken.
After her friend died in a car crash, Eugenia Kuyda, co-founder of Russian AI startup Luka, trained a neural network-powered chatbot on their shared message history to mimic him. Journalist and amateur coder James Vlahos took a more involved approach, carrying out extensive interviews with his terminally ill father so that he could create a digital clone of him when he died.
For those of us without the time or expertise to build our own artificial intelligence-powered avatar, startup Eternime is offering to take your social media posts and interactions as well as basic personal information to build a copy of you that could then interact with relatives once you’re gone. The service is so far only running a private beta with a handful of people, but with 40,000 on its waiting list, it’s clear there’s a market.
The whole idea may seem eerily similar to the Black Mirror episode Be Right Back, in which a woman pays a company to create a digital copy of her deceased husband and eventually a realistic robot replica. And given the show’s focus on the emotional turmoil she goes through, people might question whether the idea is a sensible one.
But it’s hard to say at this stage whether being able to interact with an approximation of a deceased loved one would be a help or a hindrance in the grieving process. The fear is that it could make it harder for people to “let go” or “move on,” but others think it could play a useful therapeutic role, reminding people that just because someone is dead it doesn’t mean they’re gone, and providing a novel way for them to express and come to terms with their feelings.
While at present most envisage these digital resurrections as a way to memorialize loved ones, there are also more ambitious plans to use the technology as a way to preserve expertise and experience. A project at MIT called Augmented Eternity is investigating whether we could use AI to trawl through someone’s digital footprints and extract both their knowledge and elements of their personality.
Project leader Hossein Rahnama says he’s already working with a CEO who wants to leave behind a digital avatar that future executives could consult with after he’s gone. And you wouldn’t necessarily have to wait until you’re dead—experts could create virtual clones of themselves that could dispense advice on demand to far more people. These clones could soon be more than simple chatbots, too. Hollywood has already started spending millions of dollars to create 3D scans of its most bankable stars so that they can keep acting beyond the grave.
It’s easy to see the appeal of the idea; imagine if we could bring back Stephen Hawking or Tim Cook to share their wisdom with us. And what if we could create a digital brain trust combining the experience and wisdom of all the world’s greatest thinkers, accessible on demand?
But there are still huge hurdles ahead before we could create truly accurate representations of people by simply trawling through their digital remains. The first problem is data. Most peoples’ digital footprints only started reaching significant proportions in the last decade or so, and cover a relatively small period of their lives. It could take many years before there’s enough data to create more than just a superficial imitation of someone.
And that’s assuming that the data we produce is truly representative of who we are. Carefully-crafted Instagram profiles and cautiously-worded work emails hardly capture the messy realities of most peoples’ lives.
Perhaps if the idea is simply to create a bank of someone’s knowledge and expertise, accurately capturing the essence of their character would be less important. But these clones would also be static. Real people continually learn and change, but a digital avatar is a snapshot of someone’s character and opinions at the point they died. An inability to adapt as the world around them changes could put a shelf life on the usefulness of these replicas.
Who’s Calling the (Digital) Shots?
It won’t stop people trying, though, and that raises a potentially more important question: Who gets to make the calls about our digital afterlife? The subjects, their families, or the companies that hold their data?
In most countries, the law is currently pretty hazy on this topic. Companies like Google and Facebook have processes to let you choose who should take control of your accounts in the event of your death. But if you’ve forgotten to do that, the fate of your virtual remains comes down to a tangle of federal law, local law, and tech company terms of service.
This lack of regulation could create incentives and opportunities for unscrupulous behavior. The voice of a deceased loved one could be a highly persuasive tool for exploitation, and digital replicas of respected experts could be powerful means of pushing a hidden agenda.
That means there’s a pressing need for clear and unambiguous rules. Researchers at Oxford University recently suggested ethical guidelines that would treat our digital remains the same way museums and archaeologists are required to treat mortal remains—with dignity and in the interest of society.
Whether those kinds of guidelines are ever enshrined in law remains to be seen, but ultimately they may decide whether the digital afterlife turns out to be heaven or hell.
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Maybe they could call it the School of Space Rock: A new program being offered at the Colorado School of Mines (CSM) will educate post-graduate students on the nuts and bolts of extracting and using valuable materials such as rare metals and frozen water from space rocks like asteroids or the moon.
Officially called Space Resources, the graduate-level program is reputedly the first of its kind in the world to offer a course in the emerging field of space mining. Heading the program is Angel Abbud-Madrid, director of the Center for Space Resources at Mines, a well-known engineering school located in Golden, Colorado, where Molson Coors taps Rocky Mountain spring water for its earthly brews.
The first semester for the new discipline began last month. While Abbud-Madrid didn’t immediately respond to an interview request, Singularity Hub did talk to Chris Lewicki, president and CEO of Planetary Resources, a space mining company whose founders include Peter Diamandis, Singularity University co-founder.
A former NASA engineer who worked on multiple Mars missions, Lewicki says the Space Resources program at CSM, with its multidisciplinary focus on science, economics, and policy, will help students be light years ahead of their peers in the nascent field of space mining.
“I think it’s very significant that they’ve started this program,” he said. “Having students with that kind of background exposure just allows them to be productive on day one instead of having to kind of fill in a lot of things for them.”
Who would be attracted to apply for such a program? There are many professionals who could be served by a post-baccalaureate certificate, master’s degree, or even Ph.D. in Space Resources, according to Lewicki. Certainly aerospace engineers and planetary scientists would be among the faces in the classroom.
“I think it’s [also] people who have an interest in what I would call maybe space robotics,” he said. Lewicki is referring not only to the classic example of robotic arms like the Canadarm2, which lends a hand to astronauts aboard the International Space Station, but other types of autonomous platforms.
One example might be Planetary Resources’ own Arkyd-6, a small, autonomous satellite called a CubeSat launched earlier this year to test different technologies that might be used for deep-space exploration of resources. The proof-of-concept was as much a test for the technology—such as the first space-based use of a mid-wave infrared imager to detect water resources—as it was for being able to work in space on a shoestring budget.
“We really proved that doing one of these billion-dollar science missions to deep space can be done for a lot less if you have a very focused goal, and if you kind of cut a lot of corners and then put some commercial approaches into those things,” Lewicki said.
A Trillion-Dollar Industry
Why space mining? There are at least a trillion reasons.
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson famously said that the first trillionaire will be the “person who exploits the natural resources on asteroids.” That’s because asteroids—rocky remnants from the formation of our solar system more than four billion years ago—harbor precious metals, ranging from platinum and gold to iron and nickel.
For instance, one future target of exploration by NASA—an asteroid dubbed 16 Psyche, orbiting the sun in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter—is worth an estimated $10,000 quadrillion. It’s a number so mind-bogglingly big that it would crash the global economy, if someone ever figured out how to tow it back to Earth without literally crashing it into the planet.
Living Off the Land
Space mining isn’t just about getting rich. Many argue that humanity’s ability to extract resources in space, especially water that can be refined into rocket fuel, will be a key technology to extend our reach beyond near-Earth space.
The presence of frozen water around the frigid polar regions of the moon, for example, represents an invaluable source to power future deep-space missions. Splitting H20 into its component elements of hydrogen and oxygen would provide a nearly inexhaustible source of rocket fuel. Today, it costs $10,000 to put a pound of payload in Earth orbit, according to NASA.
Until more advanced rocket technology is developed, the moon looks to be the best bet for serving as the launching pad to Mars and beyond.
Moon Versus Asteroid
However, Lewicki notes that despite the moon’s proximity and our more intimate familiarity with its pockmarked surface, that doesn’t mean a lunar mission to extract resources is any easier than a multi-year journey to a fast-moving asteroid.
For one thing, fighting gravity to and from the moon is no easy feat, as the moon has a significantly stronger gravitational field than an asteroid. Another challenge is that the frozen water is located in permanently shadowed lunar craters, meaning space miners can’t rely on solar-powered equipment, but on some sort of external energy source.
And then there’s the fact that moon craters might just be the coldest places in the solar system. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter found temperatures plummeted as low as 26 Kelvin, or more than minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit. In comparison, the coldest temperatures on Earth have been recorded near the South Pole in Antarctica—about minus 148 degrees F.
“We don’t operate machines in that kind of thermal environment,” Lewicki said of the extreme temperatures detected in the permanent dark regions of the moon. “Antarctica would be a balmy desert island compared to a lunar polar crater.”
Of course, no one knows quite what awaits us in the asteroid belt. Answers may soon be forthcoming. Last week, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency landed two small, hopping rovers on an asteroid called Ryugu. Meanwhile, NASA hopes to retrieve a sample from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu when its OSIRIS-REx mission makes contact at the end of this year.
No Bucks, No Buck Rogers
Visionaries like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos talk about colonies on Mars, with millions of people living and working in space. The reality is that there’s probably a reason Buck Rogers was set in the 25th century: It’s going to take a lot of money and a lot of time to realize those sci-fi visions.
Or, as Lewicki put it: “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”
The cost of operating in outer space can be prohibitive. Planetary Resources itself is grappling with raising additional funding, with reports this year about layoffs and even a possible auction of company assets.
Still, Lewicki is confident that despite economic and technical challenges, humanity will someday exceed even the boldest dreamers—skyscrapers on the moon, interplanetary trips to Mars—as judged against today’s engineering marvels.
“What we’re doing is going to be very hard, very painful, and almost certainly worth it,” he said. “Who would have thought that there would be a job for a space miner that you could go to school for, even just five or ten years ago. Things move quickly.”
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