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#434837 In Defense of Black Box AI

Deep learning is powering some amazing new capabilities, but we find it hard to scrutinize the workings of these algorithms. Lack of interpretability in AI is a common concern and many are trying to fix it, but is it really always necessary to know what’s going on inside these “black boxes”?

In a recent perspective piece for Science, Elizabeth Holm, a professor of materials science and engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, argued in defense of the black box algorithm. I caught up with her last week to find out more.

Edd Gent: What’s your experience with black box algorithms?

Elizabeth Holm: I got a dual PhD in materials science and engineering and scientific computing. I came to academia about six years ago and part of what I wanted to do in making this career change was to refresh and revitalize my computer science side.

I realized that computer science had changed completely. It used to be about algorithms and making codes run fast, but now it’s about data and artificial intelligence. There are the interpretable methods like random forest algorithms, where we can tell how the machine is making its decisions. And then there are the black box methods, like convolutional neural networks.

Once in a while we can find some information about their inner workings, but most of the time we have to accept their answers and kind of probe around the edges to figure out the space in which we can use them and how reliable and accurate they are.

EG: What made you feel like you had to mount a defense of these black box algorithms?

EH: When I started talking with my colleagues, I found that the black box nature of many of these algorithms was a real problem for them. I could understand that because we’re scientists, we always want to know why and how.

It got me thinking as a bit of a contrarian, “Are black boxes all bad? Must we reject them?” Surely not, because human thought processes are fairly black box. We often rely on human thought processes that the thinker can’t necessarily explain.

It’s looking like we’re going to be stuck with these methods for a while, because they’re really helpful. They do amazing things. And so there’s a very pragmatic realization that these are the best methods we’ve got to do some really important problems, and we’re not right now seeing alternatives that are interpretable. We’re going to have to use them, so we better figure out how.

EG: In what situations do you think we should be using black box algorithms?

EH: I came up with three rules. The simplest rule is: when the cost of a bad decision is small and the value of a good decision is high, it’s worth it. The example I gave in the paper is targeted advertising. If you send an ad no one wants it doesn’t cost a lot. If you’re the receiver it doesn’t cost a lot to get rid of it.

There are cases where the cost is high, and that’s then we choose the black box if it’s the best option to do the job. Things get a little trickier here because we have to ask “what are the costs of bad decisions, and do we really have them fully characterized?” We also have to be very careful knowing that our systems may have biases, they may have limitations in where you can apply them, they may be breakable.

But at the same time, there are certainly domains where we’re going to test these systems so extensively that we know their performance in virtually every situation. And if their performance is better than the other methods, we need to do it. Self driving vehicles are a significant example—it’s almost certain they’re going to have to use black box methods, and that they’re going to end up being better drivers than humans.

The third rule is the more fun one for me as a scientist, and that’s the case where the black box really enlightens us as to a new way to look at something. We have trained a black box to recognize the fracture energy of breaking a piece of metal from a picture of the broken surface. It did a really good job, and humans can’t do this and we don’t know why.

What the computer seems to be seeing is noise. There’s a signal in that noise, and finding it is very difficult, but if we do we may find something significant to the fracture process, and that would be an awesome scientific discovery.

EG: Do you think there’s been too much emphasis on interpretability?

EH: I think the interpretability problem is a fundamental, fascinating computer science grand challenge and there are significant issues where we need to have an interpretable model. But how I would frame it is not that there’s too much emphasis on interpretability, but rather that there’s too much dismissiveness of uninterpretable models.

I think that some of the current social and political issues surrounding some very bad black box outcomes have convinced people that all machine learning and AI should be interpretable because that will somehow solve those problems.

Asking humans to explain their rationale has not eliminated bias, or stereotyping, or bad decision-making in humans. Relying too much on interpreted ability perhaps puts the responsibility in the wrong place for getting better results. I can make a better black box without knowing exactly in what way the first one was bad.

EG: Looking further into the future, do you think there will be situations where humans will have to rely on black box algorithms to solve problems we can’t get our heads around?

EH: I do think so, and it’s not as much of a stretch as we think it is. For example, humans don’t design the circuit map of computer chips anymore. We haven’t for years. It’s not a black box algorithm that designs those circuit boards, but we’ve long since given up trying to understand a particular computer chip’s design.

With the billions of circuits in every computer chip, the human mind can’t encompass it, either in scope or just the pure time that it would take to trace every circuit. There are going to be cases where we want a system so complex that only the patience that computers have and their ability to work in very high-dimensional spaces is going to be able to do it.

So we can continue to argue about interpretability, but we need to acknowledge that we’re going to need to use black boxes. And this is our opportunity to do our due diligence to understand how to use them responsibly, ethically, and with benefits rather than harm. And that’s going to be a social conversation as well as as a scientific one.

*Responses have been edited for length and style

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Posted in Human Robots

#434827 AI and Robotics Are Transforming ...

During the past 50 years, the frequency of recorded natural disasters has surged nearly five-fold.

In this blog, I’ll be exploring how converging exponential technologies (AI, robotics, drones, sensors, networks) are transforming the future of disaster relief—how we can prevent them in the first place and get help to victims during that first golden hour wherein immediate relief can save lives.

Here are the three areas of greatest impact:

AI, predictive mapping, and the power of the crowd
Next-gen robotics and swarm solutions
Aerial drones and immediate aid supply

Let’s dive in!

Artificial Intelligence and Predictive Mapping
When it comes to immediate and high-precision emergency response, data is gold.

Already, the meteoric rise of space-based networks, stratosphere-hovering balloons, and 5G telecommunications infrastructure is in the process of connecting every last individual on the planet.

Aside from democratizing the world’s information, however, this upsurge in connectivity will soon grant anyone the ability to broadcast detailed geo-tagged data, particularly those most vulnerable to natural disasters.

Armed with the power of data broadcasting and the force of the crowd, disaster victims now play a vital role in emergency response, turning a historically one-way blind rescue operation into a two-way dialogue between connected crowds and smart response systems.

With a skyrocketing abundance of data, however, comes a new paradigm: one in which we no longer face a scarcity of answers. Instead, it will be the quality of our questions that matters most.

This is where AI comes in: our mining mechanism.

In the case of emergency response, what if we could strategically map an almost endless amount of incoming data points? Or predict the dynamics of a flood and identify a tsunami’s most vulnerable targets before it even strikes? Or even amplify critical signals to trigger automatic aid by surveillance drones and immediately alert crowdsourced volunteers?

Already, a number of key players are leveraging AI, crowdsourced intelligence, and cutting-edge visualizations to optimize crisis response and multiply relief speeds.

Take One Concern, for instance. Born out of Stanford under the mentorship of leading AI expert Andrew Ng, One Concern leverages AI through analytical disaster assessment and calculated damage estimates.

Partnering with the cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and numerous cities in San Mateo County, the platform assigns verified, unique ‘digital fingerprints’ to every element in a city. Building robust models of each system, One Concern’s AI platform can then monitor site-specific impacts of not only climate change but each individual natural disaster, from sweeping thermal shifts to seismic movement.

This data, combined with that of city infrastructure and former disasters, are then used to predict future damage under a range of disaster scenarios, informing prevention methods and structures in need of reinforcement.

Within just four years, One Concern can now make precise predictions with an 85 percent accuracy rate in under 15 minutes.

And as IoT-connected devices and intelligent hardware continue to boom, a blooming trillion-sensor economy will only serve to amplify AI’s predictive capacity, offering us immediate, preventive strategies long before disaster strikes.

Beyond natural disasters, however, crowdsourced intelligence, predictive crisis mapping, and AI-powered responses are just as formidable a triage in humanitarian disasters.

One extraordinary story is that of Ushahidi. When violence broke out after the 2007 Kenyan elections, one local blogger proposed a simple yet powerful question to the web: “Any techies out there willing to do a mashup of where the violence and destruction is occurring and put it on a map?”

Within days, four ‘techies’ heeded the call, building a platform that crowdsourced first-hand reports via SMS, mined the web for answers, and—with over 40,000 verified reports—sent alerts back to locals on the ground and viewers across the world.

Today, Ushahidi has been used in over 150 countries, reaching a total of 20 million people across 100,000+ deployments. Now an open-source crisis-mapping software, its V3 (or “Ushahidi in the Cloud”) is accessible to anyone, mining millions of Tweets, hundreds of thousands of news articles, and geo-tagged, time-stamped data from countless sources.

Aggregating one of the longest-running crisis maps to date, Ushahidi’s Syria Tracker has proved invaluable in the crowdsourcing of witness reports. Providing real-time geographic visualizations of all verified data, Syria Tracker has enabled civilians to report everything from missing people and relief supply needs to civilian casualties and disease outbreaks— all while evading the government’s cell network, keeping identities private, and verifying reports prior to publication.

As mobile connectivity and abundant sensors converge with AI-mined crowd intelligence, real-time awareness will only multiply in speed and scale.

Imagining the Future….

Within the next 10 years, spatial web technology might even allow us to tap into mesh networks.

As I’ve explored in a previous blog on the implications of the spatial web, while traditional networks rely on a limited set of wired access points (or wireless hotspots), a wireless mesh network can connect entire cities via hundreds of dispersed nodes that communicate with each other and share a network connection non-hierarchically.

In short, this means that individual mobile users can together establish a local mesh network using nothing but the computing power in their own devices.

Take this a step further, and a local population of strangers could collectively broadcast countless 360-degree feeds across a local mesh network.

Imagine a scenario in which armed attacks break out across disjointed urban districts, each cluster of eye witnesses and at-risk civilians broadcasting an aggregate of 360-degree videos, all fed through photogrammetry AIs that build out a live hologram in real time, giving family members and first responders complete information.

Or take a coastal community in the throes of torrential rainfall and failing infrastructure. Now empowered by a collective live feed, verification of data reports takes a matter of seconds, and richly-layered data informs first responders and AI platforms with unbelievable accuracy and specificity of relief needs.

By linking all the right technological pieces, we might even see the rise of automated drone deliveries. Imagine: crowdsourced intelligence is first cross-referenced with sensor data and verified algorithmically. AI is then leveraged to determine the specific needs and degree of urgency at ultra-precise coordinates. Within minutes, once approved by personnel, swarm robots rush to collect the requisite supplies, equipping size-appropriate drones with the right aid for rapid-fire delivery.

This brings us to a second critical convergence: robots and drones.

While cutting-edge drone technology revolutionizes the way we deliver aid, new breakthroughs in AI-geared robotics are paving the way for superhuman emergency responses in some of today’s most dangerous environments.

Let’s explore a few of the most disruptive examples to reach the testing phase.

First up….

Autonomous Robots and Swarm Solutions
As hardware advancements converge with exploding AI capabilities, disaster relief robots are graduating from assistance roles to fully autonomous responders at a breakneck pace.

Born out of MIT’s Biomimetic Robotics Lab, the Cheetah III is but one of many robots that may form our first line of defense in everything from earthquake search-and-rescue missions to high-risk ops in dangerous radiation zones.

Now capable of running at 6.4 meters per second, Cheetah III can even leap up to a height of 60 centimeters, autonomously determining how to avoid obstacles and jump over hurdles as they arise.

Initially designed to perform spectral inspection tasks in hazardous settings (think: nuclear plants or chemical factories), the Cheetah’s various iterations have focused on increasing its payload capacity, range of motion, and even a gripping function with enhanced dexterity.

Cheetah III and future versions are aimed at saving lives in almost any environment.

And the Cheetah III is not alone. Just this February, Tokyo’s Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has put one of its own robots to the test. For the first time since Japan’s devastating 2011 tsunami, which led to three nuclear meltdowns in the nation’s Fukushima nuclear power plant, a robot has successfully examined the reactor’s fuel.

Broadcasting the process with its built-in camera, the robot was able to retrieve small chunks of radioactive fuel at five of the six test sites, offering tremendous promise for long-term plans to clean up the still-deadly interior.

Also out of Japan, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHi) is even using robots to fight fires with full autonomy. In a remarkable new feat, MHi’s Water Cannon Bot can now put out blazes in difficult-to-access or highly dangerous fire sites.

Delivering foam or water at 4,000 liters per minute and 1 megapascal (MPa) of pressure, the Cannon Bot and its accompanying Hose Extension Bot even form part of a greater AI-geared system to conduct reconnaissance and surveillance on larger transport vehicles.

As wildfires grow ever more untameable, high-volume production of such bots could prove a true lifesaver. Paired with predictive AI forest fire mapping and autonomous hauling vehicles, not only will solutions like MHi’s Cannon Bot save numerous lives, but avoid population displacement and paralyzing damage to our natural environment before disaster has the chance to spread.

But even in cases where emergency shelter is needed, groundbreaking (literally) robotics solutions are fast to the rescue.

After multiple iterations by Fastbrick Robotics, the Hadrian X end-to-end bricklaying robot can now autonomously build a fully livable, 180-square-meter home in under three days. Using a laser-guided robotic attachment, the all-in-one brick-loaded truck simply drives to a construction site and directs blocks through its robotic arm in accordance with a 3D model.

Meeting verified building standards, Hadrian and similar solutions hold massive promise in the long-term, deployable across post-conflict refugee sites and regions recovering from natural catastrophes.

But what if we need to build emergency shelters from local soil at hand? Marking an extraordinary convergence between robotics and 3D printing, the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia (IAAC) is already working on a solution.

In a major feat for low-cost construction in remote zones, IAAC has found a way to convert almost any soil into a building material with three times the tensile strength of industrial clay. Offering myriad benefits, including natural insulation, low GHG emissions, fire protection, air circulation, and thermal mediation, IAAC’s new 3D printed native soil can build houses on-site for as little as $1,000.

But while cutting-edge robotics unlock extraordinary new frontiers for low-cost, large-scale emergency construction, novel hardware and computing breakthroughs are also enabling robotic scale at the other extreme of the spectrum.

Again, inspired by biological phenomena, robotics specialists across the US have begun to pilot tiny robotic prototypes for locating trapped individuals and assessing infrastructural damage.

Take RoboBees, tiny Harvard-developed bots that use electrostatic adhesion to ‘perch’ on walls and even ceilings, evaluating structural damage in the aftermath of an earthquake.

Or Carnegie Mellon’s prototyped Snakebot, capable of navigating through entry points that would otherwise be completely inaccessible to human responders. Driven by AI, the Snakebot can maneuver through even the most densely-packed rubble to locate survivors, using cameras and microphones for communication.

But when it comes to fast-paced reconnaissance in inaccessible regions, miniature robot swarms have good company.

Next-Generation Drones for Instantaneous Relief Supplies
Particularly in the case of wildfires and conflict zones, autonomous drone technology is fundamentally revolutionizing the way we identify survivors in need and automate relief supply.

Not only are drones enabling high-resolution imagery for real-time mapping and damage assessment, but preliminary research shows that UAVs far outpace ground-based rescue teams in locating isolated survivors.

As presented by a team of electrical engineers from the University of Science and Technology of China, drones could even build out a mobile wireless broadband network in record time using a “drone-assisted multi-hop device-to-device” program.

And as shown during Houston’s Hurricane Harvey, drones can provide scores of predictive intel on everything from future flooding to damage estimates.

Among multiple others, a team led by Texas A&M computer science professor and director of the university’s Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue Dr. Robin Murphy flew a total of 119 drone missions over the city, from small-scale quadcopters to military-grade unmanned planes. Not only were these critical for monitoring levee infrastructure, but also for identifying those left behind by human rescue teams.

But beyond surveillance, UAVs have begun to provide lifesaving supplies across some of the most remote regions of the globe. One of the most inspiring examples to date is Zipline.

Created in 2014, Zipline has completed 12,352 life-saving drone deliveries to date. While drones are designed, tested, and assembled in California, Zipline primarily operates in Rwanda and Tanzania, hiring local operators and providing over 11 million people with instant access to medical supplies.

Providing everything from vaccines and HIV medications to blood and IV tubes, Zipline’s drones far outpace ground-based supply transport, in many instances providing life-critical blood cells, plasma, and platelets in under an hour.

But drone technology is even beginning to transcend the limited scale of medical supplies and food.

Now developing its drones under contracts with DARPA and the US Marine Corps, Logistic Gliders, Inc. has built autonomously-navigating drones capable of carrying 1,800 pounds of cargo over unprecedented long distances.

Built from plywood, Logistic’s gliders are projected to cost as little as a few hundred dollars each, making them perfect candidates for high-volume remote aid deliveries, whether navigated by a pilot or self-flown in accordance with real-time disaster zone mapping.

As hardware continues to advance, autonomous drone technology coupled with real-time mapping algorithms pose no end of abundant opportunities for aid supply, disaster monitoring, and richly layered intel previously unimaginable for humanitarian relief.

Concluding Thoughts
Perhaps one of the most consequential and impactful applications of converging technologies is their transformation of disaster relief methods.

While AI-driven intel platforms crowdsource firsthand experiential data from those on the ground, mobile connectivity and drone-supplied networks are granting newfound narrative power to those most in need.

And as a wave of new hardware advancements gives rise to robotic responders, swarm technology, and aerial drones, we are fast approaching an age of instantaneous and efficiently-distributed responses in the midst of conflict and natural catastrophes alike.

Empowered by these new tools, what might we create when everyone on the planet has the same access to relief supplies and immediate resources? In a new age of prevention and fast recovery, what futures can you envision?

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Posted in Human Robots

#434820 Microsoft’s Brad Smith on How to ...

Microsoft’s president talks about the promise and perils of artificial intelligence Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#434781 What Would It Mean for AI to Become ...

As artificial intelligence systems take on more tasks and solve more problems, it’s hard to say which is rising faster: our interest in them or our fear of them. Futurist Ray Kurzweil famously predicted that “By 2029, computers will have emotional intelligence and be convincing as people.”

We don’t know how accurate this prediction will turn out to be. Even if it takes more than 10 years, though, is it really possible for machines to become conscious? If the machines Kurzweil describes say they’re conscious, does that mean they actually are?

Perhaps a more relevant question at this juncture is: what is consciousness, and how do we replicate it if we don’t understand it?

In a panel discussion at South By Southwest titled “How AI Will Design the Human Future,” experts from academia and industry discussed these questions and more.

Wait, What Is AI?
Most of AI’s recent feats—diagnosing illnesses, participating in debate, writing realistic text—involve machine learning, which uses statistics to find patterns in large datasets then uses those patterns to make predictions. However, “AI” has been used to refer to everything from basic software automation and algorithms to advanced machine learning and deep learning.

“The term ‘artificial intelligence’ is thrown around constantly and often incorrectly,” said Jennifer Strong, a reporter at the Wall Street Journal and host of the podcast “The Future of Everything.” Indeed, one study found that 40 percent of European companies that claim to be working on or using AI don’t actually use it at all.

Dr. Peter Stone, associate chair of computer science at UT Austin, was the study panel chair on the 2016 One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence (or AI100) report. Based out of Stanford University, AI100 is studying and anticipating how AI will impact our work, our cities, and our lives.

“One of the first things we had to do was define AI,” Stone said. They defined it as a collection of different technologies inspired by the human brain to be able to perceive their surrounding environment and figure out what actions to take given these inputs.

Modeling on the Unknown
Here’s the crazy thing about that definition (and about AI itself): we’re essentially trying to re-create the abilities of the human brain without having anything close to a thorough understanding of how the human brain works.

“We’re starting to pair our brains with computers, but brains don’t understand computers and computers don’t understand brains,” Stone said. Dr. Heather Berlin, cognitive neuroscientist and professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, agreed. “It’s still one of the greatest mysteries how this three-pound piece of matter can give us all our subjective experiences, thoughts, and emotions,” she said.

This isn’t to say we’re not making progress; there have been significant neuroscience breakthroughs in recent years. “This has been the stuff of science fiction for a long time, but now there’s active work being done in this area,” said Amir Husain, CEO and founder of Austin-based AI company Spark Cognition.

Advances in brain-machine interfaces show just how much more we understand the brain now than we did even a few years ago. Neural implants are being used to restore communication or movement capabilities in people who’ve been impaired by injury or illness. Scientists have been able to transfer signals from the brain to prosthetic limbs and stimulate specific circuits in the brain to treat conditions like Parkinson’s, PTSD, and depression.

But much of the brain’s inner workings remain a deep, dark mystery—one that will have to be further solved if we’re ever to get from narrow AI, which refers to systems that can perform specific tasks and is where the technology stands today, to artificial general intelligence, or systems that possess the same intelligence level and learning capabilities as humans.

The biggest question that arises here, and one that’s become a popular theme across stories and films, is if machines achieve human-level general intelligence, does that also mean they’d be conscious?

Wait, What Is Consciousness?
As valuable as the knowledge we’ve accumulated about the brain is, it seems like nothing more than a collection of disparate facts when we try to put it all together to understand consciousness.

“If you can replace one neuron with a silicon chip that can do the same function, then replace another neuron, and another—at what point are you still you?” Berlin asked. “These systems will be able to pass the Turing test, so we’re going to need another concept of how to measure consciousness.”

Is consciousness a measurable phenomenon, though? Rather than progressing by degrees or moving through some gray area, isn’t it pretty black and white—a being is either conscious or it isn’t?

This may be an outmoded way of thinking, according to Berlin. “It used to be that only philosophers could study consciousness, but now we can study it from a scientific perspective,” she said. “We can measure changes in neural pathways. It’s subjective, but depends on reportability.”

She described three levels of consciousness: pure subjective experience (“Look, the sky is blue”), awareness of one’s own subjective experience (“Oh, it’s me that’s seeing the blue sky”), and relating one subjective experience to another (“The blue sky reminds me of a blue ocean”).

“These subjective states exist all the way down the animal kingdom. As humans we have a sense of self that gives us another depth to that experience, but it’s not necessary for pure sensation,” Berlin said.

Husain took this definition a few steps farther. “It’s this self-awareness, this idea that I exist separate from everything else and that I can model myself,” he said. “Human brains have a wonderful simulator. They can propose a course of action virtually, in their minds, and see how things play out. The ability to include yourself as an actor means you’re running a computation on the idea of yourself.”

Most of the decisions we make involve envisioning different outcomes, thinking about how each outcome would affect us, and choosing which outcome we’d most prefer.

“Complex tasks you want to achieve in the world are tied to your ability to foresee the future, at least based on some mental model,” Husain said. “With that view, I as an AI practitioner don’t see a problem implementing that type of consciousness.”

Moving Forward Cautiously (But Not too Cautiously)
To be clear, we’re nowhere near machines achieving artificial general intelligence or consciousness, and whether a “conscious machine” is possible—not to mention necessary or desirable—is still very much up for debate.

As machine intelligence continues to advance, though, we’ll need to walk the line between progress and risk management carefully.

Improving the transparency and explainability of AI systems is one crucial goal AI developers and researchers are zeroing in on. Especially in applications that could mean the difference between life and death, AI shouldn’t advance without people being able to trace how it’s making decisions and reaching conclusions.

Medicine is a prime example. “There are already advances that could save lives, but they’re not being used because they’re not trusted by doctors and nurses,” said Stone. “We need to make sure there’s transparency.” Demanding too much transparency would also be a mistake, though, because it will hinder the development of systems that could at best save lives and at worst improve efficiency and free up doctors to have more face time with patients.

Similarly, self-driving cars have great potential to reduce deaths from traffic fatalities. But even though humans cause thousands of deadly crashes every day, we’re terrified by the idea of self-driving cars that are anything less than perfect. “If we only accept autonomous cars when there’s zero probability of an accident, then we will never accept them,” Stone said. “Yet we give 16-year-olds the chance to take a road test with no idea what’s going on in their brains.”

This brings us back to the fact that, in building tech modeled after the human brain—which has evolved over millions of years—we’re working towards an end whose means we don’t fully comprehend, be it something as basic as choosing when to brake or accelerate or something as complex as measuring consciousness.

“We shouldn’t charge ahead and do things just because we can,” Stone said. “The technology can be very powerful, which is exciting, but we have to consider its implications.”

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Posted in Human Robots

#434767 7 Non-Obvious Trends Shaping the Future

When you think of trends that might be shaping the future, the first things that come to mind probably have something to do with technology: Robots taking over jobs. Artificial intelligence advancing and proliferating. 5G making everything faster, connected cities making everything easier, data making everything more targeted.

Technology is undoubtedly changing the way we live, and will continue to do so—probably at an accelerating rate—in the near and far future. But there are other trends impacting the course of our lives and societies, too. They’re less obvious, and some have nothing to do with technology.

For the past nine years, entrepreneur and author Rohit Bhargava has read hundreds of articles across all types of publications, tagged and categorized them by topic, funneled frequent topics into broader trends, analyzed those trends, narrowed them down to the most significant ones, and published a book about them as part of his ‘Non-Obvious’ series. He defines a trend as “a unique curated observation of the accelerating present.”

In an encore session at South by Southwest last week (his initial talk couldn’t fit hundreds of people who wanted to attend, so a re-do was scheduled), Bhargava shared details of his creative process, why it’s hard to think non-obviously, the most important trends of this year, and how to make sure they don’t get the best of you.

Thinking Differently
“Non-obvious thinking is seeing the world in a way other people don’t see it,” Bhargava said. “The secret is curating your ideas.” Curation collects ideas and presents them in a meaningful way; museum curators, for example, decide which works of art to include in an exhibit and how to present them.

For his own curation process, Bhargava uses what he calls the haystack method. Rather than searching for a needle in a haystack, he gathers ‘hay’ (ideas and stories) then uses them to locate and define a ‘needle’ (a trend). “If you spend enough time gathering information, you can put the needle into the middle of the haystack,” he said.

A big part of gathering information is looking for it in places you wouldn’t normally think to look. In his case, that means that on top of reading what everyone else reads—the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Economist—he also buys publications like Modern Farmer, Teen Vogue, and Ink magazine. “It’s like stepping into someone else’s world who’s not like me,” he said. “That’s impossible to do online because everything is personalized.”

Three common barriers make non-obvious thinking hard.

The first is unquestioned assumptions, which are facts or habits we think will never change. When James Dyson first invented the bagless vacuum, he wanted to sell the license to it, but no one believed people would want to spend more money up front on a vacuum then not have to buy bags. The success of Dyson’s business today shows how mistaken that assumption—that people wouldn’t adapt to a product that, at the end of the day, was far more sensible—turned out to be. “Making the wrong basic assumptions can doom you,” Bhargava said.

The second barrier to thinking differently is constant disruption. “Everything is changing as industries blend together,” Bhargava said. “The speed of change makes everyone want everything, all the time, and people expect the impossible.” We’ve come to expect every alternative to be presented to us in every moment, but in many cases this doesn’t serve us well; we’re surrounded by noise and have trouble discerning what’s valuable and authentic.

This ties into the third barrier, which Bhargava calls the believability crisis. “Constant sensationalism makes people skeptical about everything,” he said. With the advent of fake news and technology like deepfakes, we’re in a post-truth, post-fact era, and are in a constant battle to discern what’s real from what’s not.

2019 Trends
Bhargava’s efforts to see past these barriers and curate information yielded 15 trends he believes are currently shaping the future. He shared seven of them, along with thoughts on how to stay ahead of the curve.

Retro Trust
We tend to trust things we have a history with. “People like nostalgic experiences,” Bhargava said. With tech moving as fast as it is, old things are quickly getting replaced by shinier, newer, often more complex things. But not everyone’s jumping on board—and some who’ve been on board are choosing to jump off in favor of what worked for them in the past.

“We’re turning back to vinyl records and film cameras, deliberately downgrading to phones that only text and call,” Bhargava said. In a period of too much change too fast, people are craving familiarity and dependability. To capitalize on that sentiment, entrepreneurs should seek out opportunities for collaboration—how can you build a product that’s new, but feels reliable and familiar?

Muddled Masculinity
Women have increasingly taken on more leadership roles, advanced in the workplace, now own more homes than men, and have higher college graduation rates. That’s all great for us ladies—but not so great for men or, perhaps more generally, for the concept of masculinity.

“Female empowerment is causing confusion about what it means to be a man today,” Bhargava said. “Men don’t know what to do—should they say something? Would that make them an asshole? Should they keep quiet? Would that make them an asshole?”

By encouraging the non-conforming, we can help take some weight off the traditional gender roles, and their corresponding divisions and pressures.

Innovation Envy
Innovation has become an over-used word, to the point that it’s thrown onto ideas and actions that aren’t really innovative at all. “We innovate by looking at someone else and doing the same,” Bhargava said. If an employee brings a radical idea to someone in a leadership role, in many companies the leadership will say they need a case study before implementing the radical idea—but if it’s already been done, it’s not innovative. “With most innovation what ends up happening is not spectacular failure, but irrelevance,” Bhargava said.

He suggests that rather than being on the defensive, companies should play offense with innovation, and when it doesn’t work “fail as if no one’s watching” (often, no one will be).

Artificial Influence
Thanks to social media and other technologies, there are a growing number of fabricated things that, despite not being real, influence how we think. “15 percent of all Twitter accounts may be fake, and there are 60 million fake Facebook accounts,” Bhargava said. There are virtual influencers and even virtual performers.

“Don’t hide the artificial ingredients,” Bhargava advised. “Some people are going to pretend it’s all real. We have to be ethical.” The creators of fabrications meant to influence the way people think, or the products they buy, or the decisions they make, should make it crystal-clear that there aren’t living, breathing people behind the avatars.

Enterprise Empathy
Another reaction to the fast pace of change these days—and the fast pace of life, for that matter—is that empathy is regaining value and even becoming a driver of innovation. Companies are searching for ways to give people a sense of reassurance. The Tesco grocery brand in the UK has a “relaxed lane” for those who don’t want to feel rushed as they check out. Starbucks opened a “signing store” in Washington DC, and most of its regular customers have learned some sign language.

“Use empathy as a principle to help yourself stand out,” Bhargava said. Besides being a good business strategy, “made with empathy” will ideally promote, well, more empathy, a quality there’s often a shortage of.

Robot Renaissance
From automating factory jobs to flipping burgers to cleaning our floors, robots have firmly taken their place in our day-to-day lives—and they’re not going away anytime soon. “There are more situations with robots than ever before,” Bhargava said. “They’re exploring underwater. They’re concierges at hotels.”

The robot revolution feels intimidating. But Bhargava suggests embracing robots with more curiosity than concern. While they may replace some tasks we don’t want replaced, they’ll also be hugely helpful in multiple contexts, from elderly care to dangerous manual tasks.

Back-storytelling
Similar to retro trust and enterprise empathy, organizations have started to tell their brand’s story to gain customer loyalty. “Stories give us meaning, and meaning is what we need in order to be able to put the pieces together,” Bhargava said. “Stories give us a way of understanding the world.”

Finding the story behind your business, brand, or even yourself, and sharing it openly, can help you connect with people, be they customers, coworkers, or friends.

Tech’s Ripple Effects
While it may not overtly sound like it, most of the trends Bhargava identified for 2019 are tied to technology, and are in fact a sort of backlash against it. Tech has made us question who to trust, how to innovate, what’s real and what’s fake, how to make the best decisions, and even what it is that makes us human.

By being aware of these trends, sharing them, and having conversations about them, we’ll help shape the way tech continues to be built, and thus the way it impacts us down the road.

Image Credit: Rohit Bhargava by Brian Smale Continue reading

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