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If there’s one line that stands the test of time in Steven Spielberg’s 1993 classic Jurassic Park, it’s probably Jeff Goldblum’s exclamation, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
Goldblum’s character, Dr. Ian Malcolm, was warning against the hubris of naively tinkering with dinosaur DNA in an effort to bring these extinct creatures back to life. Twenty-five years on, his words are taking on new relevance as a growing number of scientists and companies are grappling with how to tread the line between “could” and “should” in areas ranging from gene editing and real-world “de-extinction” to human augmentation, artificial intelligence and many others.
Despite growing concerns that powerful emerging technologies could lead to unexpected and wide-ranging consequences, innovators are struggling with how to develop beneficial new products while being socially responsible. Part of the answer could lie in watching more science fiction movies like Jurassic Park.
Hollywood Lessons in Societal Risks
I’ve long been interested in how innovators and others can better understand the increasingly complex landscape around the social risks and benefits associated with emerging technologies. Growing concerns over the impacts of tech on jobs, privacy, security and even the ability of people to live their lives without undue interference highlight the need for new thinking around how to innovate responsibly.
New ideas require creativity and imagination, and a willingness to see the world differently. And this is where science fiction movies can help.
Sci-fi flicks are, of course, notoriously unreliable when it comes to accurately depicting science and technology. But because their plots are often driven by the intertwined relationships between people and technology, they can be remarkably insightful in revealing social factors that affect successful and responsible innovation.
This is clearly seen in Jurassic Park. The movie provides a surprisingly good starting point for thinking about the pros and cons of modern-day genetic engineering and the growing interest in bringing extinct species back from the dead. But it also opens up conversations around the nature of complex systems that involve both people and technology, and the potential dangers of “permissionless” innovation that’s driven by power, wealth and a lack of accountability.
Similar insights emerge from a number of other movies, including Spielberg’s 2002 film “Minority Report”—which presaged a growing capacity for AI-enabled crime prediction and the ethical conundrums it’s raising—as well as the 2014 film Ex Machina.
As with Jurassic Park, Ex Machina centers around a wealthy and unaccountable entrepreneur who is supremely confident in his own abilities. In this case, the technology in question is artificial intelligence.
The movie tells a tale of an egotistical genius who creates a remarkable intelligent machine—but he lacks the awareness to recognize his limitations and the risks of what he’s doing. It also provides a chilling insight into potential dangers of creating machines that know us better than we know ourselves, while not being bound by human norms or values.
The result is a sobering reminder of how, without humility and a good dose of humanity, our innovations can come back to bite us.
The technologies in Jurassic Park, Minority Report, and Ex Machina lie beyond what is currently possible. Yet these films are often close enough to emerging trends that they help reveal the dangers of irresponsible, or simply naive, innovation. This is where these and other science fiction movies can help innovators better understand the social challenges they face and how to navigate them.
Real-World Problems Worked Out On-Screen
In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, journalist Kara Swisher asked, “Who will teach Silicon Valley to be ethical?” Prompted by a growing litany of socially questionable decisions amongst tech companies, Swisher suggests that many of them need to grow up and get serious about ethics. But ethics alone are rarely enough. It’s easy for good intentions to get swamped by fiscal pressures and mired in social realities.
Elon Musk has shown that brilliant tech innovators can take ethical missteps along the way. Image Credit:AP Photo/Chris Carlson
Technology companies increasingly need to find some way to break from business as usual if they are to become more responsible. High-profile cases involving companies like Facebook and Uber as well as Tesla’s Elon Musk have highlighted the social as well as the business dangers of operating without fully understanding the consequences of people-oriented actions.
Many more companies are struggling to create socially beneficial technologies and discovering that, without the necessary insights and tools, they risk blundering about in the dark.
For instance, earlier this year, researchers from Google and DeepMind published details of an artificial intelligence-enabled system that can lip-read far better than people. According to the paper’s authors, the technology has enormous potential to improve the lives of people who have trouble speaking aloud. Yet it doesn’t take much to imagine how this same technology could threaten the privacy and security of millions—especially when coupled with long-range surveillance cameras.
Developing technologies like this in socially responsible ways requires more than good intentions or simply establishing an ethics board. People need a sophisticated understanding of the often complex dynamic between technology and society. And while, as Mozilla’s Mitchell Baker suggests, scientists and technologists engaging with the humanities can be helpful, it’s not enough.
An Easy Way into a Serious Discipline
The “new formulation” of complementary skills Baker says innovators desperately need already exists in a thriving interdisciplinary community focused on socially responsible innovation. My home institution, the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University, is just one part of this.
Experts within this global community are actively exploring ways to translate good ideas into responsible practices. And this includes the need for creative insights into the social landscape around technology innovation, and the imagination to develop novel ways to navigate it.
People love to come together as a movie audience.Image credit: The National Archives UK, CC BY 4.0
Here is where science fiction movies become a powerful tool for guiding innovators, technology leaders and the companies where they work. Their fictional scenarios can reveal potential pitfalls and opportunities that can help steer real-world decisions toward socially beneficial and responsible outcomes, while avoiding unnecessary risks.
And science fiction movies bring people together. By their very nature, these films are social and educational levelers. Look at who’s watching and discussing the latest sci-fi blockbuster, and you’ll often find a diverse cross-section of society. The genre can help build bridges between people who know how science and technology work, and those who know what’s needed to ensure they work for the good of society.
This is the underlying theme in my new book Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies. It’s written for anyone who’s curious about emerging trends in technology innovation and how they might potentially affect society. But it’s also written for innovators who want to do the right thing and just don’t know where to start.
Of course, science fiction films alone aren’t enough to ensure socially responsible innovation. But they can help reveal some profound societal challenges facing technology innovators and possible ways to navigate them. And what better way to learn how to innovate responsibly than to invite some friends round, open the popcorn and put on a movie?
It certainly beats being blindsided by risks that, with hindsight, could have been avoided.
Andrew Maynard, Director, Risk Innovation Lab, Arizona State University
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
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The boundaries between digital and physical space are disappearing at a breakneck pace. What was once static and boring is becoming dynamic and magical.
For all of human history, looking at the world through our eyes was the same experience for everyone. Beyond the bounds of an over-active imagination, what you see is the same as what I see.
But all of this is about to change. Over the next two to five years, the world around us is about to light up with layer upon layer of rich, fun, meaningful, engaging, and dynamic data. Data you can see and interact with.
This magical future ahead is called the Spatial Web and will transform every aspect of our lives, from retail and advertising, to work and education, to entertainment and social interaction.
Massive change is underway as a result of a series of converging technologies, from 5G global networks and ubiquitous artificial intelligence, to 30+ billion connected devices (known as the IoT), each of which will generate scores of real-world data every second, everywhere.
The current AI explosion will make everything smart, autonomous, and self-programming. Blockchain and cloud-enabled services will support a secure data layer, putting data back in the hands of users and allowing us to build complex rule-based infrastructure in tomorrow’s virtual worlds.
And with the rise of online-merge-offline (OMO) environments, two-dimensional screens will no longer serve as our exclusive portal to the web. Instead, virtual and augmented reality eyewear will allow us to interface with a digitally-mapped world, richly layered with visual data.
Welcome to the Spatial Web. Over the next few months, I’ll be doing a deep dive into the Spatial Web (a.k.a. Web 3.0), covering what it is, how it works, and its vast implications across industries, from real estate and healthcare to entertainment and the future of work. In this blog, I’ll discuss the what, how, and why of Web 3.0—humanity’s first major foray into our virtual-physical hybrid selves (BTW, this year at Abundance360, we’ll be doing a deep dive into the Spatial Web with the leaders of HTC, Magic Leap, and High-Fidelity).
Let’s dive in.
What is the Spatial Web?
While we humans exist in three dimensions, our web today is flat.
The web was designed for shared information, absorbed through a flat screen. But as proliferating sensors, ubiquitous AI, and interconnected networks blur the lines between our physical and online worlds, we need a spatial web to help us digitally map a three-dimensional world.
To put Web 3.0 in context, let’s take a trip down memory lane. In the late 1980s, the newly-birthed world wide web consisted of static web pages and one-way information—a monumental system of publishing and linking information unlike any unified data system before it. To connect, we had to dial up through unstable modems and struggle through insufferably slow connection speeds.
But emerging from this revolutionary (albeit non-interactive) infodump, Web 2.0 has connected the planet more in one decade than empires did in millennia.
Granting democratized participation through newly interactive sites and applications, today’s web era has turbocharged information-sharing and created ripple effects of scientific discovery, economic growth, and technological progress on an unprecedented scale.
We’ve seen the explosion of social networking sites, wikis, and online collaboration platforms. Consumers have become creators; physically isolated users have been handed a global microphone; and entrepreneurs can now access billions of potential customers.
But if Web 2.0 took the world by storm, the Spatial Web emerging today will leave it in the dust.
While there’s no clear consensus about its definition, the Spatial Web refers to a computing environment that exists in three-dimensional space—a twinning of real and virtual realities—enabled via billions of connected devices and accessed through the interfaces of virtual and augmented reality.
In this way, the Spatial Web will enable us to both build a twin of our physical reality in the virtual realm and bring the digital into our real environments.
It’s the next era of web-like technologies:
Spatial computing technologies, like augmented and virtual reality;
Physical computing technologies, like IoT and robotic sensors;
And decentralized computing: both blockchain—which enables greater security and data authentication—and edge computing, which pushes computing power to where it’s most needed, speeding everything up.
Geared with natural language search, data mining, machine learning, and AI recommendation agents, the Spatial Web is a growing expanse of services and information, navigable with the use of ever-more-sophisticated AI assistants and revolutionary new interfaces.
Where Web 1.0 consisted of static documents and read-only data, Web 2.0 introduced multimedia content, interactive web applications, and social media on two-dimensional screens. But converging technologies are quickly transcending the laptop, and will even disrupt the smartphone in the next decade.
With the rise of wearables, smart glasses, AR / VR interfaces, and the IoT, the Spatial Web will integrate seamlessly into our physical environment, overlaying every conversation, every road, every object, conference room, and classroom with intuitively-presented data and AI-aided interaction.
Think: the Oasis in Ready Player One, where anyone can create digital personas, build and invest in smart assets, do business, complete effortless peer-to-peer transactions, and collect real estate in a virtual world.
Or imagine a virtual replica or “digital twin” of your office, each conference room authenticated on the blockchain, requiring a cryptographic key for entry.
As I’ve discussed with my good friend and “VR guru” Philip Rosedale, I’m absolutely clear that in the not-too-distant future, every physical element of every building in the world is going to be fully digitized, existing as a virtual incarnation or even as N number of these. “Meet me at the top of the Empire State Building?” “Sure, which one?”
This digitization of life means that suddenly every piece of information can become spatial, every environment can be smarter by virtue of AI, and every data point about me and my assets—both virtual and physical—can be reliably stored, secured, enhanced, and monetized.
In essence, the Spatial Web lets us interface with digitally-enhanced versions of our physical environment and build out entirely fictional virtual worlds—capable of running simulations, supporting entire economies, and even birthing new political systems.
But while I’ll get into the weeds of different use cases next week, let’s first concretize.
How Does It Work?
Let’s start with the stack. In the PC days, we had a database accompanied by a program that could ingest that data and present it to us as digestible information on a screen.
Then, in the early days of the web, data migrated to servers. Information was fed through a website, with which you would interface via a browser—whether Mosaic or Mozilla.
And then came the cloud.
Resident at either the edge of the cloud or on your phone, today’s rapidly proliferating apps now allow us to interact with previously read-only data, interfacing through a smartphone. But as Siri and Alexa have brought us verbal interfaces, AI-geared phone cameras can now determine your identity, and sensors are beginning to read our gestures.
And now we’re not only looking at our screens but through them, as the convergence of AI and AR begins to digitally populate our physical worlds.
While Pokémon Go sent millions of mobile game-players on virtual treasure hunts, IKEA is just one of the many companies letting you map virtual furniture within your physical home—simulating everything from cabinets to entire kitchens. No longer the one-sided recipients, we’re beginning to see through sensors, creatively inserting digital content in our everyday environments.
Let’s take a look at how the latest incarnation might work. In this new Web 3.0 stack, my personal AI would act as an intermediary, accessing public or privately-authorized data through the blockchain on my behalf, and then feed it through an interface layer composed of everything from my VR headset, to numerous wearables, to my smart environment (IoT-connected devices or even in-home robots).
But as we attempt to build a smart world with smart infrastructure, smart supply chains and smart everything else, we need a set of basic standards with addresses for people, places, and things. Just like our web today relies on the Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) and other infrastructure, by which your computer is addressed and data packets are transferred, we need infrastructure for the Spatial Web.
And a select group of players is already stepping in to fill this void. Proposing new structural designs for Web 3.0, some are attempting to evolve today’s web model from text-based web pages in 2D to three-dimensional AR and VR web experiences located in both digitally-mapped physical worlds and newly-created virtual ones.
With a spatial programming language analogous to HTML, imagine building a linkable address for any physical or virtual space, granting it a format that then makes it interchangeable and interoperable with all other spaces.
But it doesn’t stop there.
As soon as we populate a virtual room with content, we then need to encode who sees it, who can buy it, who can move it…
And the Spatial Web’s eventual governing system (for posting content on a centralized grid) would allow us to address everything from the room you’re sitting in, to the chair on the other side of the table, to the building across the street.
Just as we have a DNS for the web and the purchasing of web domains, once we give addresses to spaces (akin to granting URLs), we then have the ability to identify and visit addressable locations, physical objects, individuals, or pieces of digital content in cyberspace.
And these not only apply to virtual worlds, but to the real world itself. As new mapping technologies emerge, we can now map rooms, objects, and large-scale environments into virtual space with increasing accuracy.
We might then dictate who gets to move your coffee mug in a virtual conference room, or when a team gets to use the room itself. Rules and permissions would be set in the grid, decentralized governance systems, or in the application layer.
Taken one step further, imagine then monetizing smart spaces and smart assets. If you have booked the virtual conference room, perhaps you’ll let me pay you 0.25 BTC to let me use it instead?
But given the Spatial Web’s enormous technological complexity, what’s allowing it to emerge now?
Why Is It Happening Now?
While countless entrepreneurs have already started harnessing blockchain technologies to build decentralized apps (or dApps), two major developments are allowing today’s birth of Web 3.0:
High-resolution wireless VR/AR headsets are finally catapulting virtual and augmented reality out of a prolonged winter.
The International Data Corporation (IDC) predicts the VR and AR headset market will reach 65.9 million units by 2022. Already in the next 18 months, 2 billion devices will be enabled with AR. And tech giants across the board have long begun investing heavy sums.
In early 2019, HTC is releasing the VIVE Focus, a wireless self-contained VR headset. At the same time, Facebook is charging ahead with its Project Santa Cruz—the Oculus division’s next-generation standalone, wireless VR headset. And Magic Leap has finally rolled out its long-awaited Magic Leap One mixed reality headset.
Mass deployment of 5G will drive 10 to 100-gigabit connection speeds in the next 6 years, matching hardware progress with the needed speed to create virtual worlds.
We’ve already seen tremendous leaps in display technology. But as connectivity speeds converge with accelerating GPUs, we’ll start to experience seamless VR and AR interfaces with ever-expanding virtual worlds.
And with such democratizing speeds, every user will be able to develop in VR.
But accompanying these two catalysts is also an important shift towards the decentralized web and a demand for user-controlled data.
Converging technologies, from immutable ledgers and blockchain to machine learning, are now enabling the more direct, decentralized use of web applications and creation of user content. With no central point of control, middlemen are removed from the equation and anyone can create an address, independently interacting with the network.
Enabled by a permission-less blockchain, any user—regardless of birthplace, gender, ethnicity, wealth, or citizenship—would thus be able to establish digital assets and transfer them seamlessly, granting us a more democratized Internet.
And with data stored on distributed nodes, this also means no single point of failure. One could have multiple backups, accessible only with digital authorization, leaving users immune to any single server failure.
Implications Abound–What’s Next…
With a newly-built stack and an interface built from numerous converging technologies, the Spatial Web will transform every facet of our everyday lives—from the way we organize and access our data, to our social and business interactions, to the way we train employees and educate our children.
We’re about to start spending more time in the virtual world than ever before. Beyond entertainment or gameplay, our livelihoods, work, and even personal decisions are already becoming mediated by a web electrified with AI and newly-emerging interfaces.
In our next blog on the Spatial Web, I’ll do a deep dive into the myriad industry implications of Web 3.0, offering tangible use cases across sectors.
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For big companies, success is a blessing and a curse. You don’t get big without doing something (or many things) very right. It might start with an invention or service the world didn’t know it needed. Your product takes off, and growth brings a whole new set of logistical challenges. Delivering consistent quality, hiring the right team, establishing a strong culture, tapping into new markets, satisfying shareholders. The list goes on.
Eventually, however, what made you successful also makes you resistant to change.
You’ve built a machine for one purpose, and it’s running smoothly, but what about retooling that machine to make something new? Not so easy. Leaders of big companies know there is no future for their organizations without change. And yet, they struggle to drive it.
In their new book, Leading Transformation: How to Take Charge of Your Company’s Future, Kyle Nel, Nathan Furr, and Thomas Ramsøy aim to deliver a roadmap for corporate transformation.
The book focuses on practical tools that have worked in big companies to break down behavioral and cognitive biases, envision radical futures, and run experiments. These include using science fiction and narrative to see ahead and adopting better measures of success for new endeavors.
A thread throughout is how to envision a new future and move into that future.
We’re limited by the bubbles in which we spend the most time—the corporate bubble, the startup bubble, the nonprofit bubble. The mutually beneficial convergence of complementary bubbles, then, can be a powerful tool for kickstarting transformation. The views and experiences of one partner can challenge the accepted wisdom of the other; resources can flow into newly co-created visions and projects; and connections can be made that wouldn’t otherwise exist.
The authors call such alliances uncommon partners. In the following excerpt from the book, Made In Space, a startup building 3D printers for space, helps Lowe’s explore an in-store 3D printing system, and Lowe’s helps Made In Space expand its vision and focus.
In a dingy conference room at NASA, five prototypical nerds, smelling of Thai food, laid out the path to printing satellites in space and buildings on distant planets. At the end of their four-day marathon, they emerged with an artifact trail that began with early prototypes for the first 3D printer on the International Space Station and ended in the additive-manufacturing future—a future much bigger than 3D printing.
In the additive-manufacturing future, we will view everything as transient, or capable of being repurposed into new things. Rather than throwing away a soda bottle or a bent nail, we will simply reprocess these things into a new hinge for the fence we are building or a light switch plate for the tool shed. Indeed, we might not even go buy bricks for the tool shed, but instead might print them from impurities pulled from the air and the dirt beneath our feet. Such a process would both capture carbon in the air to make the bricks and avoid all the carbon involved in making and then transporting traditional bricks to your house.
If it all sounds a little too science fiction, think again. Lowe’s has already been honored as a Champion of Change by the US government for its prototype system to recycle plastic (e.g., plastic bags and bottles). The future may be closer than you have imagined. But to get there, Lowe’s didn’t work alone. It had to work with uncommon partners to create the future.
Uncommon partners are the types of organizations you might not normally work with, but which can greatly help you create radical new futures. Increasingly, as new technologies emerge and old industries converge, companies are finding that working independently to create all the necessary capabilities to enter new industries or create new technologies is costly, risky, and even counterproductive. Instead, organizations are finding that they need to collaborate with uncommon partners as an ecosystem to cocreate the future together. Nathan [Furr] and his colleague at INSEAD, Andrew Shipilov, call this arrangement an adaptive ecosystem strategy and described how companies such as Lowe’s, Samsung, Mastercard, and others are learning to work differently with partners and to work with different kinds of partners to more effectively discover new opportunities. For Lowe’s, an adaptive ecosystem strategy working with uncommon partners forms the foundation of capturing new opportunities and transforming the company. Despite its increased agility, Lowe’s can’t be (and shouldn’t become) an independent additive-manufacturing, robotics-using, exosuit-building, AR-promoting, fill-in-the-blank-what’s-next-ing company in addition to being a home improvement company. Instead, Lowe’s applies an adaptive ecosystem strategy to find the uncommon partners with which it can collaborate in new territory.
To apply the adaptive ecosystem strategy with uncommon partners, start by identifying the technical or operational components required for a particular focus area (e.g., exosuits) and then sort these components into three groups. First, there are the components that are emerging organically without any assistance from the orchestrator—the leader who tries to bring together the adaptive ecosystem. Second, there are the elements that might emerge, with encouragement and support. Third are the elements that won’t happen unless you do something about it. In an adaptive ecosystem strategy, you can create regular partnerships for the first two elements—those already emerging or that might emerge—if needed. But you have to create the elements in the final category (those that won’t emerge) either with an uncommon partner or by yourself.
For example, when Lowe’s wanted to explore the additive-manufacturing space, it began a search for an uncommon partner to provide the missing but needed capabilities. Unfortunately, initial discussions with major 3D printing companies proved disappointing. The major manufacturers kept trying to sell Lowe’s 3D printers. But the vision our group had created with science fiction was not for vendors to sell Lowe’s a printer, but for partners to help the company build a system—something that would allow customers to scan, manipulate, print, and eventually recycle additive-manufacturing objects. Every time we discussed 3D printing systems with these major companies, they responded that they could do it and then tried to sell printers. When Carin Watson, one of the leading lights at Singularity University, introduced us to Made In Space (a company being incubated in Singularity University’s futuristic accelerator), we discovered an uncommon partner that understood what it meant to cocreate a system.
Initially, Made In Space had been focused on simply getting 3D printing to work in space, where you can’t rely on gravity, you can’t send up a technician if the machine breaks, and you can’t release noxious fumes into cramped spacecraft quarters. But after the four days in the conference room going over the comic for additive manufacturing, Made In Space and Lowe’s emerged with a bigger vision. The company helped lay out an artifact trail that included not only the first printer on the International Space Station but also printing system services in Lowe’s stores.
Of course, the vision for an additive-manufacturing future didn’t end there. It also reshaped Made In Space’s trajectory, encouraging the startup, during those four days in a NASA conference room, to design a bolder future. Today, some of its bold projects include the Archinaut, a system that enables satellites to build themselves while in space, a direction that emerged partly from the science fiction narrative we created around additive manufacturing.
In summary, uncommon partners help you succeed by providing you with the capabilities you shouldn’t be building yourself, as well as with fresh insights. You also help uncommon partners succeed by creating new opportunities from which they can prosper.
Helping Uncommon Partners Prosper
Working most effectively with uncommon partners can require a shift from more familiar outsourcing or partnership relationships. When working with uncommon partners, you are trying to cocreate the future, which entails a great deal more uncertainty. Because you can’t specify outcomes precisely, agreements are typically less formal than in other types of relationships, and they operate under the provisions of shared vision and trust more than binding agreement clauses. Moreover, your goal isn’t to extract all the value from the relationship. Rather, you need to find a way to share the value.
Ideally, your uncommon partners should be transformed for the better by the work you do. For example, Lowe’s uncommon partner developing the robotics narrative was a small startup called Fellow Robots. Through their work with Lowe’s, Fellow Robots transformed from a small team focused on a narrow application of robotics (which was arguably the wrong problem) to a growing company developing a very different and valuable set of capabilities: putting cutting-edge technology on top of the old legacy systems embedded at the core of most companies. Working with Lowe’s allowed Fellow Robots to discover new opportunities, and today Fellow Robots works with retailers around the world, including BevMo! and Yamada. Ultimately, working with uncommon partners should be transformative for both of you, so focus more on creating a bigger pie than on how you are going to slice up a smaller pie.
The above excerpt appears in the new book Leading Transformation: How to Take Charge of Your Company’s Future by Kyle Nel, Nathan Furr, and Thomas Ramsøy, published by Harvard Business Review Press.
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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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If a recent project using Google’s DeepMind were a recipe, you would take a pair of AI systems, images of animals, and a whole lot of computing power. Mix it all together, and you’d get a series of imagined animals dreamed up by one of the AIs. A look through the research paper about the project—or this open Google Folder of images it produced—will likely lead you to agree that the results are a mix of impressive and downright eerie.
But the eerie factor doesn’t mean the project shouldn’t be considered a success and a step forward for future uses of AI.
From GAN To BigGAN
The team behind the project consists of Andrew Brock, a PhD student at Edinburgh Center for Robotics, and DeepMind intern and researcher Jeff Donahue and Karen Simonyan.
They used a so-called Generative Adversarial Network (GAN) to generate the images. In a GAN, two AI systems collaborate in a game-like manner. One AI produces images of an object or creature. The human equivalent would be drawing pictures of, for example, a dog—without necessarily knowing what a dog exactly looks like. Those images are then shown to the second AI, which has already been fed images of dogs. The second AI then tells the first one how far off its efforts were. The first one uses this information to improve its images. The two go back and forth in an iterative process, and the goal is for the first AI to become so good at creating images of dogs that the second can’t tell the difference between its creations and actual pictures of dogs.
The team was able to draw on Google’s vast vaults of computational power to create images of a quality and life-like nature that were beyond almost anything seen before. In part, this was achieved by feeding the GAN with more images than is usually the case. According to IFLScience, the standard is to feed about 64 images per subject into the GAN. In this case, the research team fed about 2,000 images per subject into the system, leading to it being nicknamed BigGAN.
Their results showed that feeding the system with more images and using masses of raw computer power markedly increased the GAN’s precision and ability to create life-like renditions of the subjects it was trained to reproduce.
“The main thing these models need is not algorithmic improvements, but computational ones. […] When you increase model capacity and you increase the number of images you show at every step, you get this twofold combined effect,” Andrew Brock told Fast Company.
The Power Drain
The team used 512 of Google’s AI-focused Tensor Processing Units (TPU) to generate 512-pixel images. Each experiment took between 24 and 48 hours to run.
That kind of computing power needs a lot of electricity. As artist and Innovator-In-Residence at the Library of Congress Jer Thorp tongue-in-cheek put it on Twitter: “The good news is that AI can now give you a more believable image of a plate of spaghetti. The bad news is that it used roughly enough energy to power Cleveland for the afternoon.”
Thorp added that a back-of-the-envelope calculation showed that the computations to produce the images would require about 27,000 square feet of solar panels to have adequate power.
BigGAN’s images have been hailed by researchers, with Oriol Vinyals, research scientist at DeepMind, rhetorically asking if these were the ‘Best GAN samples yet?’
However, they are still not perfect. The number of legs on a given creature is one example of where the BigGAN seemed to struggle. The system was good at recognizing that something like a spider has a lot of legs, but seemed unable to settle on how many ‘a lot’ was supposed to be. The same applied to dogs, especially if the images were supposed to show said dogs in motion.
Those eerie images are contrasted by other renditions that show such lifelike qualities that a human mind has a hard time identifying them as fake. Spaniels with lolling tongues, ocean scenery, and butterflies were all rendered with what looks like perfection. The same goes for an image of a hamburger that was good enough to make me stop writing because I suddenly needed lunch.
The Future Use Cases
GAN networks were first introduced in 2014, and given their relative youth, researchers and companies are still busy trying out possible use cases.
One possible use is image correction—making pixillated images clearer. Not only does this help your future holiday snaps, but it could be applied in industries such as space exploration. A team from the University of Michigan and the Max Planck Institute have developed a method for GAN networks to create images from text descriptions. At Berkeley, a research group has used GAN to create an interface that lets users change the shape, size, and design of objects, including a handbag.
For anyone who has seen a film like Wag the Dog or read 1984, the possibilities are also starkly alarming. GANs could, in other words, make fake news look more real than ever before.
For now, it seems that while not all GANs require the computational and electrical power of the BigGAN, there is still some way to reach these potential use cases. However, if there’s one lesson from Moore’s Law and exponential technology, it is that today’s technical roadblock quickly becomes tomorrow’s minor issue as technology progresses.
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