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Over the past few years, the word ‘innovation’ has degenerated into something of a buzzword. In fact, according to Vijay Vaitheeswaran, US business editor at The Economist, it’s one of the most abused words in the English language.
The word is over-used precisely because we’re living in a great age of invention. But the pace at which those inventions are changing our lives is fast, new, and scary.
So what strategies do companies need to adopt to make sure technology leads to growth that’s not only profitable, but positive? How can business and government best collaborate? Can policymakers regulate the market without suppressing innovation? Which technologies will impact us most, and how soon?
At The Economist Innovation Summit in Chicago last week, entrepreneurs, thought leaders, policymakers, and academics shared their insights on the current state of exponential technologies, and the steps companies and individuals should be taking to ensure a tech-positive future. Here’s their expert take on the tech and trends shaping the future.
There’s been a lot of hype around blockchain; apparently it can be used for everything from distributing aid to refugees to voting. However, it’s too often conflated with cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, and we haven’t heard of many use cases. Where does the technology currently stand?
Julie Sweet, chief executive of Accenture North America, emphasized that the technology is still in its infancy. “Everything we see today are pilots,” she said. The most promising of these pilots are taking place across three different areas: supply chain, identity, and financial services.
When you buy something from outside the US, Sweet explained, it goes through about 80 different parties. 70 percent of the relevant data is replicated and is prone to error, with paper-based documents often to blame. Blockchain is providing a secure way to eliminate paper in supply chains, upping accuracy and cutting costs in the process.
One of the most prominent use cases in the US is Walmart—the company has mandated that all suppliers in its leafy greens segment be on a blockchain, and its food safety has improved as a result.
Beth Devin, head of Citi Ventures’ innovation network, added “Blockchain is an infrastructure technology. It can be leveraged in a lot of ways. There’s so much opportunity to create new types of assets and securities that aren’t accessible to people today. But there’s a lot to figure out around governance.”
Open Source Technology
Are the days of proprietary technology numbered? More and more companies and individuals are making their source code publicly available, and its benefits are thus more widespread than ever before. But what are the limitations and challenges of open source tech, and where might it go in the near future?
Bob Lord, senior VP of cognitive applications at IBM, is a believer. “Open-sourcing technology helps innovation occur, and it’s a fundamental basis for creating great technology solutions for the world,” he said. However, the biggest challenge for open source right now is that companies are taking out more than they’re contributing back to the open-source world. Lord pointed out that IBM has a rule about how many lines of code employees take out relative to how many lines they put in.
Another challenge area is open governance; blockchain by its very nature should be transparent and decentralized, with multiple parties making decisions and being held accountable. “We have to embrace open governance at the same time that we’re contributing,” Lord said. He advocated for a hybrid-cloud environment where people can access public and private data and bring it together.
Augmented and Virtual Reality
Augmented and virtual reality aren’t just for fun and games anymore, and they’ll be even less so in the near future. According to Pearly Chen, vice president at HTC, they’ll also go from being two different things to being one and the same. “AR overlays digital information on top of the real world, and VR transports you to a different world,” she said. “In the near future we will not need to delineate between these two activities; AR and VR will come together naturally, and will change everything we do as we know it today.”
For that to happen, we’ll need a more ergonomically friendly device than we have today for interacting with this technology. “Whenever we use tech today, we’re multitasking,” said product designer and futurist Jody Medich. “When you’re using GPS, you’re trying to navigate in the real world and also manage this screen. Constant task-switching is killing our brain’s ability to think.” Augmented and virtual reality, she believes, will allow us to adapt technology to match our brain’s functionality.
This all sounds like a lot of fun for uses like gaming and entertainment, but what about practical applications? “Ultimately what we care about is how this technology will improve lives,” Chen said.
A few ways that could happen? Extended reality will be used to simulate hazardous real-life scenarios, reduce the time and resources needed to bring a product to market, train healthcare professionals (such as surgeons), or provide therapies for patients—not to mention education. “Think about the possibilities for children to learn about history, science, or math in ways they can’t today,” Chen said.
If there’s one technology that’s truly baffling, it’s quantum computing. Qubits, entanglement, quantum states—it’s hard to wrap our heads around these concepts, but they hold great promise. Where is the tech right now?
Mandy Birch, head of engineering strategy at Rigetti Computing, thinks quantum development is starting slowly but will accelerate quickly. “We’re at the innovation stage right now, trying to match this capability to useful applications,” she said. “Can we solve problems cheaper, better, and faster than classical computers can do?” She believes quantum’s first breakthrough will happen in two to five years, and that is highest potential is in applications like routing, supply chain, and risk optimization, followed by quantum chemistry (for materials science and medicine) and machine learning.
David Awschalom, director of the Chicago Quantum Exchange and senior scientist at Argonne National Laboratory, believes quantum communication and quantum sensing will become a reality in three to seven years. “We’ll use states of matter to encrypt information in ways that are completely secure,” he said. A quantum voting system, currently being prototyped, is one application.
Who should be driving quantum tech development? The panelists emphasized that no one entity will get very far alone. “Advancing quantum tech will require collaboration not only between business, academia, and government, but between nations,” said Linda Sapochak, division director of materials research at the National Science Foundation. She added that this doesn’t just go for the technology itself—setting up the infrastructure for quantum will be a big challenge as well.
Space has always been the final frontier, and it still is—but it’s not quite as far-removed from our daily lives now as it was when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in 1969.
The space industry has always been funded by governments and private defense contractors. But in 2009, SpaceX launched its first commercial satellite, and in subsequent years have drastically cut the cost of spaceflight. More importantly, they published their pricing, which brought transparency to a market that hadn’t seen it before.
Entrepreneurs around the world started putting together business plans, and there are now over 400 privately-funded space companies, many with consumer applications.
Chad Anderson, CEO of Space Angels and managing partner of Space Capital, pointed out that the technology floating around in space was, until recently, archaic. “A few NASA engineers saw they had more computing power in their phone than there was in satellites,” he said. “So they thought, ‘why don’t we just fly an iPhone?’” They did—and it worked.
Now companies have networks of satellites monitoring the whole planet, producing a huge amount of data that’s valuable for countless applications like agriculture, shipping, and observation. “A lot of people underestimate space,” Anderson said. “It’s already enabling our modern global marketplace.”
Next up in the space realm, he predicts, are mining and tourism.
Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Work
From the US to Europe to Asia, alarms are sounding about AI taking our jobs. What will be left for humans to do once machines can do everything—and do it better?
These fears may be unfounded, though, and are certainly exaggerated. It’s undeniable that AI and automation are changing the employment landscape (not to mention the way companies do business and the way we live our lives), but if we build these tools the right way, they’ll bring more good than harm, and more productivity than obsolescence.
Accenture’s Julie Sweet emphasized that AI alone is not what’s disrupting business and employment. Rather, it’s what she called the “triple A”: automation, analytics, and artificial intelligence. But even this fear-inducing trifecta of terms doesn’t spell doom, for workers or for companies. Accenture has automated 40,000 jobs—and hasn’t fired anyone in the process. Instead, they’ve trained and up-skilled people. The most important drivers to scale this, Sweet said, are a commitment by companies and government support (such as tax credits).
Imbuing AI with the best of human values will also be critical to its impact on our future. Tracy Frey, Google Cloud AI’s director of strategy, cited the company’s set of seven AI principles. “What’s important is the governance process that’s put in place to support those principles,” she said. “You can’t make macro decisions when you have technology that can be applied in many different ways.”
High Risks, High Stakes
This year, Vaitheeswaran said, 50 percent of the world’s population will have internet access (he added that he’s disappointed that percentage isn’t higher given the proliferation of smartphones). As technology becomes more widely available to people around the world and its influence grows even more, what are the biggest risks we should be monitoring and controlling?
Information integrity—being able to tell what’s real from what’s fake—is a crucial one. “We’re increasingly operating in siloed realities,” said Renee DiResta, director of research at New Knowledge and head of policy at Data for Democracy. “Inadvertent algorithmic amplification on social media elevates certain perspectives—what does that do to us as a society?”
Algorithms have also already been proven to perpetuate the bias of the people who create it—and those people are often wealthy, white, and male. Ensuring that technology doesn’t propagate unfair bias will be crucial to its ability to serve a diverse population, and to keep societies from becoming further polarized and inequitable. The polarization of experience that results from pronounced inequalities within countries, Vaitheeswaran pointed out, can end up undermining democracy.
We’ll also need to walk the line between privacy and utility very carefully. As Dan Wagner, founder of Civis Analytics put it, “We want to ensure privacy as much as possible, but open access to information helps us achieve important social good.” Medicine in the US has been hampered by privacy laws; if, for example, we had more data about biomarkers around cancer, we could provide more accurate predictions and ultimately better healthcare.
But going the Chinese way—a total lack of privacy—is likely not the answer, either. “We have to be very careful about the way we bake rights and freedom into our technology,” said Alex Gladstein, chief strategy officer at Human Rights Foundation.
Technology’s risks are clearly as fraught as its potential is promising. As Gary Shapiro, chief executive of the Consumer Technology Association, put it, “Everything we’ve talked about today is simply a tool, and can be used for good or bad.”
The decisions we’re making now, at every level—from the engineers writing algorithms, to the legislators writing laws, to the teenagers writing clever Instagram captions—will determine where on the spectrum we end up.
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In recent years, the media has sounded the alarm about mass job loss to automation and robotics—some studies predict that up to 50 percent of current jobs or tasks could be automated in coming decades. While this topic has received significant attention, much of the press focuses on potential problems without proposing realistic solutions or considering new opportunities.
The economic impacts of AI, robotics, and automation are complex topics that require a more comprehensive perspective to understand. Is universal basic income, for example, the answer? Many believe so, and there are a number of experiments in progress. But it’s only one strategy, and without a sustainable funding source, universal basic income may not be practical.
As automation continues to accelerate, we’ll need a multi-pronged approach to ease the transition. In short, we need to update broad socioeconomic strategies for a new century of rapid progress. How, then, do we plan practical solutions to support these new strategies?
Take history as a rough guide to the future. Looking back, technology revolutions have three themes in common.
First, past revolutions each produced profound benefits to productivity, increasing human welfare. Second, technological innovation and technology diffusion have accelerated over time, each iteration placing more strain on the human ability to adapt. And third, machines have gradually replaced more elements of human work, with human societies adapting by moving into new forms of work—from agriculture to manufacturing to service, for example.
Public and private solutions, therefore, need to be developed to address each of these three components of change. Let’s explore some practical solutions for each in turn.
Figure 1. Technology’s structural impacts in the 21st century. Refer to Appendix I for quantitative charts and technological examples corresponding to the numbers (1-22) in each slice.
Solution 1: Capture New Opportunities Through Aggressive Investment
The rapid emergence of new technology promises a bounty of opportunity for the twenty-first century’s economic winners. This technological arms race is shaping up to be a global affair, and the winners will be determined in part by who is able to build the future economy fastest and most effectively. Both the private and public sectors have a role to play in stimulating growth.
At the country level, several nations have created competitive strategies to promote research and development investments as automation technologies become more mature.
Germany and China have two of the most notable growth strategies. Germany’s Industrie 4.0 plan targets a 50 percent increase in manufacturing productivity via digital initiatives, while halving the resources required. China’s Made in China 2025 national strategy sets ambitious targets and provides subsidies for domestic innovation and production. It also includes building new concept cities, investing in robotics capabilities, and subsidizing high-tech acquisitions abroad to become the leader in certain high-tech industries. For China, specifically, tech innovation is driven partially by a fear that technology will disrupt social structures and government control.
Such opportunities are not limited to existing economic powers. Estonia’s progress after the breakup of the Soviet Union is a good case study in transitioning to a digital economy. The nation rapidly implemented capitalistic reforms and transformed itself into a technology-centric economy in preparation for a massive tech disruption. Internet access was declared a right in 2000, and the country’s classrooms were outfitted for a digital economy, with coding as a core educational requirement starting at kindergarten. Internet broadband speeds in Estonia are among the fastest in the world. Accordingly, the World Bank now ranks Estonia as a high-income country.
Solution 2: Address Increased Rate of Change With More Nimble Education Systems
Education and training are currently not set for the speed of change in the modern economy. Schools are still based on a one-time education model, with school providing the foundation for a single lifelong career. With content becoming obsolete faster and rapidly escalating costs, this system may be unsustainable in the future. To help workers more smoothly transition from one job into another, for example, we need to make education a more nimble, lifelong endeavor.
Primary and university education may still have a role in training foundational thinking and general education, but it will be necessary to curtail rising price of tuition and increase accessibility. Massive open online courses (MooCs) and open-enrollment platforms are early demonstrations of what the future of general education may look like: cheap, effective, and flexible.
Georgia Tech’s online Engineering Master’s program (a fraction of the cost of residential tuition) is an early example in making university education more broadly available. Similarly, nanodegrees or microcredentials provided by online education platforms such as Udacity and Coursera can be used for mid-career adjustments at low cost. AI itself may be deployed to supplement the learning process, with applications such as AI-enhanced tutorials or personalized content recommendations backed by machine learning. Recent developments in neuroscience research could optimize this experience by perfectly tailoring content and delivery to the learner’s brain to maximize retention.
Finally, companies looking for more customized skills may take a larger role in education, providing on-the-job training for specific capabilities. One potential model involves partnering with community colleges to create apprenticeship-style learning, where students work part-time in parallel with their education. Siemens has pioneered such a model in four states and is developing a playbook for other companies to do the same.
Solution 3: Enhance Social Safety Nets to Smooth Automation Impacts
If predicted job losses to automation come to fruition, modernizing existing social safety nets will increasingly become a priority. While the issue of safety nets can become quickly politicized, it is worth noting that each prior technological revolution has come with corresponding changes to the social contract (see below).
The evolving social contract (U.S. examples)
– 1842 | Right to strike
– 1924 | Abolish child labor
– 1935 | Right to unionize
– 1938 | 40-hour work week
– 1962, 1974 | Trade adjustment assistance
– 1964 | Pay discrimination prohibited
– 1970 | Health and safety laws
– 21st century | AI and automation adjustment assistance?
Figure 2. Labor laws have historically adjusted as technology and society progressed
Solutions like universal basic income (no-strings-attached monthly payout to all citizens) are appealing in concept, but somewhat difficult to implement as a first measure in countries such as the US or Japan that already have high debt. Additionally, universal basic income may create dis-incentives to stay in the labor force. A similar cautionary tale in program design was the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), which was designed to protect industries and workers from import competition shocks from globalization, but is viewed as a missed opportunity due to insufficient coverage.
A near-term solution could come in the form of graduated wage insurance (compensation for those forced to take a lower-paying job), including health insurance subsidies to individuals directly impacted by automation, with incentives to return to the workforce quickly. Another topic to tackle is geographic mismatch between workers and jobs, which can be addressed by mobility assistance. Lastly, a training stipend can be issued to individuals as means to upskill.
Policymakers can intervene to reverse recent historical trends that have shifted incomes from labor to capital owners. The balance could be shifted back to labor by placing higher taxes on capital—an example is the recently proposed “robot tax” where the taxation would be on the work rather than the individual executing it. That is, if a self-driving car performs the task that formerly was done by a human, the rideshare company will still pay the tax as if a human was driving.
Other solutions may involve distribution of work. Some countries, such as France and Sweden, have experimented with redistributing working hours. The idea is to cap weekly hours, with the goal of having more people employed and work more evenly spread. So far these programs have had mixed results, with lower unemployment but high costs to taxpayers, but are potential models that can continue to be tested.
We cannot stop growth, nor should we. With the roles in response to this evolution shifting, so should the social contract between the stakeholders. Government will continue to play a critical role as a stabilizing “thumb” in the invisible hand of capitalism, regulating and cushioning against extreme volatility, particularly in labor markets.
However, we already see business leaders taking on some of the role traditionally played by government—thinking about measures to remedy risks of climate change or economic proposals to combat unemployment—in part because of greater agility in adapting to change. Cross-disciplinary collaboration and creative solutions from all parties will be critical in crafting the future economy.
Note: The full paper this article is based on is available here.
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The robot revolution may not be here quite yet, but our mechanical cousins have made some serious strides. And now some of the leading experts in the field have provided a rundown of what they see as the 10 most exciting recent developments.
Compiled by the editors of the journal Science Robotics, the list includes some of the most impressive original research and innovative commercial products to make a splash in 2018, as well as a couple from 2017 that really changed the game.
1. Boston Dynamics’ Atlas doing parkour
It seems like barely a few months go by without Boston Dynamics rewriting the book on what a robot can and can’t do. Last year they really outdid themselves when they got their Atlas humanoid robot to do parkour, leaping over logs and jumping between wooden crates.
Atlas’s creators have admitted that the videos we see are cherry-picked from multiple attempts, many of which don’t go so well. But they say they’re meant to be inspirational and aspirational rather than an accurate picture of where robotics is today. And combined with the company’s dog-like Spot robot, they are certainly pushing boundaries.
2. Intuitive Surgical’s da Vinci SP platform
Robotic surgery isn’t new, but the technology is improving rapidly. Market leader Intuitive’s da Vinci surgical robot was first cleared by the FDA in 2000, but since then it’s come a long way, with the company now producing three separate systems.
The latest addition is the da Vinci SP (single port) system, which is able to insert three instruments into the body through a single 2.5cm cannula (tube) bringing a whole new meaning to minimally invasive surgery. The system was granted FDA clearance for urological procedures last year, and the company has now started shipping the new system to customers.
3. Soft robot that navigates through growth
Roboticists have long borrowed principles from the animal kingdom, but a new robot design that mimics the way plant tendrils and fungi mycelium move by growing at the tip has really broken the mold on robot navigation.
The editors point out that this is the perfect example of bio-inspired design; the researchers didn’t simply copy nature, they took a general principle and expanded on it. The tube-like robot unfolds from the front as pneumatic pressure is applied, but unlike a plant, it can grow at the speed of an animal walking and can navigate using visual feedback from a camera.
4. 3D printed liquid crystal elastomers for soft robotics
Soft robotics is one of the fastest-growing sub-disciplines in the field, but powering these devices without rigid motors or pumps is an ongoing challenge. A variety of shape-shifting materials have been proposed as potential artificial muscles, including liquid crystal elastomeric actuators.
Harvard engineers have now demonstrated that these materials can be 3D printed using a special ink that allows the designer to easily program in all kinds of unusual shape-shifting abilities. What’s more, their technique produces actuators capable of lifting significantly more weight than previous approaches.
5. Muscle-mimetic, self-healing, and hydraulically amplified actuators
In another effort to find a way to power soft robots, last year researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder designed a series of super low-cost artificial muscles that can lift 200 times their own weight and even heal themselves.
The devices rely on pouches filled with a liquid that makes them contract with the force and speed of mammalian skeletal muscles when a voltage is applied. The most promising for robotics applications is the so-called Peano-HASEL, which features multiple rectangular pouches connected in series that contract linearly, just like real muscle.
6. Self-assembled nanoscale robot from DNA
While you may think of robots as hulking metallic machines, a substantial number of scientists are working on making nanoscale robots out of DNA. And last year German researchers built the first remote-controlled DNA robotic arm.
They created a length of tightly-bound DNA molecules to act as the arm and attached it to a DNA base plate via a flexible joint. Because DNA carries a charge, they were able to get the arm to swivel around like the hand of a clock by applying a voltage and switch direction by reversing that voltage. The hope is that this arm could eventually be used to build materials piece by piece at the nanoscale.
7. DelFly nimble bioinspired robotic flapper
Robotics doesn’t only borrow from biology—sometimes it gives back to it, too. And a new flapping-winged robot designed by Dutch engineers that mimics the humble fruit fly has done just that, by revealing how the animals that inspired it carry out predator-dodging maneuvers.
The lab has been building flapping robots for years, but this time they ditched the airplane-like tail used to control previous incarnations. Instead, they used insect-inspired adjustments to the motions of its twin pairs of flapping wings to hover, pitch, and roll with the agility of a fruit fly. That has provided a useful platform for investigating insect flight dynamics, as well as more practical applications.
8. Soft exosuit wearable robot
Exoskeletons could prevent workplace injuries, help people walk again, and even boost soldiers’ endurance. Strapping on bulky equipment isn’t ideal, though, so researchers at Harvard are working on a soft exoskeleton that combines specially-designed textiles, sensors, and lightweight actuators.
And last year the team made an important breakthrough by combining their novel exoskeleton with a machine-learning algorithm that automatically tunes the device to the user’s particular walking style. Using physiological data, it is able to adjust when and where the device needs to deliver a boost to the user’s natural movements to improve walking efficiency.
9. Universal Robots (UR) e-Series Cobots
Robots in factories are nothing new. The enormous mechanical arms you see in car factories normally have to be kept in cages to prevent them from accidentally crushing people. In recent years there’s been growing interest in “co-bots,” collaborative robots designed to work side-by-side with their human colleagues and even learn from them.
Earlier this year saw the demise of ReThink robotics, the pioneer of the approach. But the simple single arm devices made by Danish firm Universal Robotics are becoming ubiquitous in workshops and warehouses around the world, accounting for about half of global co-bot sales. Last year they released their latest e-Series, with enhanced safety features and force/torque sensing.
10. Sony’s aibo
After a nearly 20-year hiatus, Sony’s robotic dog aibo is back, and it’s had some serious upgrades. As well as a revamp to its appearance, the new robotic pet takes advantage of advances in AI, with improved environmental and command awareness and the ability to develop a unique character based on interactions with its owner.
The editors note that this new context awareness mark the device out as a significant evolution in social robots, which many hope could aid in childhood learning or provide companionship for the elderly.
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When was the last time you watched a movie where you could control the plot?
Bandersnatch is the first interactive film in the sci fi anthology series Black Mirror. Written by series creator Charlie Brooker and directed by David Slade, the film tells the story of young programmer Stefan Butler, who is adapting a fantasy choose-your-own-adventure novel called Bandersnatch into a video game. Throughout the film, viewers are given the power to influence Butler’s decisions, leading to diverging plots with different endings.
Like many Black Mirror episodes, this film is mind-bending, dark, and thought-provoking. In addition to innovating cinema as we know it, it is a fascinating rumination on free will, parallel realities, and emerging technologies.
Pick Your Own Adventure
With a non-linear script, Bandersnatch is a viewing experience like no other. Throughout the film viewers are given the option of making a decision for the protagonist. In these instances, they have 10 seconds to make a decision until a default decision is made. For example, in the early stage of the plot, Butler is given the choice of accepting or rejecting Tuckersoft’s offer to develop a video game and the viewer gets to decide what he does. The decision then shapes the plot accordingly.
The video game Butler is developing involves moving through a graphical maze of corridors while avoiding a creature called the Pax, and at times making choices through an on-screen instruction (sound familiar?). In other words, it’s a pick-your-own-adventure video game in a pick-your-own-adventure movie.
Many viewers have ended up spending hours exploring all the different branches of the narrative (though the average viewing is 90 minutes). One user on reddit has mapped out an entire flowchart, showing how all the different decisions (and pseudo-decisions) lead to various endings.
However, over time, Butler starts to question his own free will. It’s almost as if he’s beginning to realize that the audience is controlling him. In one branch of the narrative, he is confronted by this reality when the audience indicates to him that he is being controlled in a Netflix show: “I am watching you on Netflix. I make all the decisions for you”. Butler, as you can imagine, is horrified by this message.
But Butler isn’t the only one who has an illusion of choice. We, the seemingly powerful viewers, also appear to operate under the illusion of choice. Despite there being five main endings to the film, they are all more or less the same.
The Science Behind Bandersnatch
The premise of Bandersnatch isn’t based on fantasy, but hard science. Free will has always been a widely-debated issue in neuroscience, with reputable scientists and studies demonstrating that the whole concept may be an illusion.
In the 1970s, a psychologist named Benjamin Libet conducted a series of experiments that studied voluntary decision making in humans. He found that brain activity imitating an action, such as moving your wrist, preceded the conscious awareness of the action.
Psychologist Malcom Gladwell theorizes that while we like to believe we spend a lot of time thinking about our decisions, our mental processes actually work rapidly, automatically, and often subconsciously, from relatively little information. In addition to this, thinking and making decisions are usually a byproduct of several different brain systems, such as the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex working together. You are more conscious of some information processes in the brain than others.
As neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris points out in his book Free Will, “You did not pick your parents or the time and place of your birth. You didn’t choose your gender or most of your life experiences. You had no control whatsoever over your genome or the development of your brain. And now your brain is making choices on the basis of preferences and beliefs that have been hammered into it over a lifetime.” Like Butler, we may believe we are operating under full agency of our abilities, but we are at the mercy of many internal and external factors that influence our decisions.
Beyond free will, Bandersnatch also taps into the theory of parallel universes, a facet of the astronomical theory of the multiverse. In astrophysics, there is a theory that there are parallel universes other than our own, where all the choices you made are played out in alternate realities. For instance, if today you had the option of having cereal or eggs for breakfast, and you chose eggs, in a parallel universe, you chose cereal. Human history and our lives may have taken different paths in these parallel universes.
The Future of Cinema
In the future, the viewing experience will no longer be a passive one. Bandersnatch is just a glimpse into how technology is revolutionizing film as we know it and making it a more interactive and personalized experience. All the different scenarios and branches of the plot were scripted and filmed, but in the future, they may be adapted real-time via artificial intelligence.
Virtual reality may allow us to play an even more active role by making us participants or characters in the film. Data from your history of preferences and may be used to create a unique version of the plot that is optimized for your viewing experience.
Let’s also not underestimate the social purpose of advancing film and entertainment. Science fiction gives us the ability to create simulations of the future. Different narratives can allow us to explore how powerful technologies combined with human behavior can result in positive or negative scenarios. Perhaps in the future, science fiction will explore implications of technologies and observe human decision making in novel contexts, via AI-powered films in the virtual world.
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Powerful surveillance cameras have crept into public spaces. We are filmed and photographed hundreds of times a day. To further raise the stakes, the resulting video footage is fed to new forms of artificial intelligence software that can recognize faces in real time, read license plates, even instantly detect when a particular pre-defined action or activity takes place in front of a camera.
As most modern cities have quietly become surveillance cities, the law has been slow to catch up. While we wait for robust legal frameworks to emerge, the best way to protect our civil liberties right now is to fight technology with technology. All cities should place local surveillance video into a public cloud-based data trust. Here’s how it would work.
In Public Data We Trust
To democratize surveillance, every city should implement three simple rules. First, anyone who aims a camera at public space must upload that day’s haul of raw video file (and associated camera meta-data) into a cloud-based repository. Second, this cloud-based repository must have open APIs and a publicly-accessible log file that records search histories and tracks who has accessed which video files. And third, everyone in the city should be given the same level of access rights to the stored video data—no exceptions.
This kind of public data repository is called a “data trust.” Public data trusts are not just wishful thinking. Different types of trusts are already in successful use in Estonia and Barcelona, and have been proposed as the best way to store and manage the urban data that will be generated by Alphabet’s planned Sidewalk Labs project in Toronto.
It’s true that few people relish the thought of public video footage of themselves being looked at by strangers and friends, by ex-spouses, potential employers, divorce attorneys, and future romantic prospects. In fact, when I propose this notion when I give talks about smart cities, most people recoil in horror. Some turn red in the face and jeer at my naiveté. Others merely blink quietly in consternation.
The reason we should take this giant step towards extreme transparency is to combat the secrecy that surrounds surveillance. Openness is a powerful antidote to oppression. Edward Snowden summed it up well when he said, “Surveillance is not about public safety, it’s about power. It’s about control.”
Let Us Watch Those Watching Us
If public surveillance video were put back into the hands of the people, citizens could watch their government as it watches them. Right now, government cameras are controlled by the state. Camera locations are kept secret, and only the agencies that control the cameras get to see the footage they generate.
Because of these information asymmetries, civilians have no insight into the size and shape of the modern urban surveillance infrastructure that surrounds us, nor the uses (or abuses) of the video footage it spawns. For example, there is no swift and efficient mechanism to request a copy of video footage from the cameras that dot our downtown. Nor can we ask our city’s police force to show us a map that documents local traffic camera locations.
By exposing all public surveillance videos to the public gaze, cities could give regular people tools to assess the size, shape, and density of their local surveillance infrastructure and neighborhood “digital dragnet.” Using the meta-data that’s wrapped around video footage, citizens could geo-locate individual cameras onto a digital map to generate surveillance “heat maps.” This way people could assess whether their city’s camera density was higher in certain zip codes, or in neighborhoods populated by a dominant ethnic group.
Surveillance heat maps could be used to document which government agencies were refusing to upload their video files, or which neighborhoods were not under surveillance. Given what we already know today about the correlation between camera density, income, and social status, these “dark” camera-free regions would likely be those located near government agencies and in more affluent parts of a city.
Extreme transparency would democratize surveillance. Every city’s data trust would keep a publicly-accessible log of who’s searching for what, and whom. People could use their local data trust’s search history to check whether anyone was searching for their name, face, or license plate. As a result, clandestine spying on—and stalking of—particular individuals would become difficult to hide and simpler to prove.
Protect the Vulnerable and Exonerate the Falsely Accused
Not all surveillance video automatically works against the underdog. As the bungled (and consequently no longer secret) assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi demonstrated, one of the unexpected upsides of surveillance cameras has been the fact that even kings become accountable for their crimes. If opened up to the public, surveillance cameras could serve as witnesses to justice.
Video evidence has the power to protect vulnerable individuals and social groups by shedding light onto messy, unreliable (and frequently conflicting) human narratives of who did what to whom, and why. With access to a data trust, a person falsely accused of a crime could prove their innocence. By searching for their own face in video footage or downloading time/date stamped footage from a particular camera, a potential suspect could document their physical absence from the scene of a crime—no lengthy police investigation or high-priced attorney needed.
Given Enough Eyeballs, All Crimes Are Shallow
Placing public surveillance video into a public trust could make cities safer and would streamline routine police work. Linus Torvalds, the developer of open-source operating system Linux, famously observed that “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” In the case of public cameras and a common data repository, Torvald’s Law could be restated as “given enough eyeballs, all crimes are shallow.”
If thousands of citizen eyeballs were given access to a city’s public surveillance videos, local police forces could crowdsource the work of solving crimes and searching for missing persons. Unfortunately, at the present time, cities are unable to wring any social benefit from video footage of public spaces. The most formidable barrier is not government-imposed secrecy, but the fact that as cameras and computers have grown cheaper, a large and fast-growing “mom and pop” surveillance state has taken over most of the filming of public spaces.
While we fear spooky government surveillance, the reality is that we’re much more likely to be filmed by security cameras owned by shopkeepers, landlords, medical offices, hotels, homeowners, and schools. These businesses, organizations, and individuals install cameras in public areas for practical reasons—to reduce their insurance costs, to prevent lawsuits, or to combat shoplifting. In the absence of regulations governing their use, private camera owners store video footage in a wide variety of locations, for varying retention periods.
The unfortunate (and unintended) result of this informal and decentralized network of public surveillance is that video files are not easy to access, even for police officers on official business. After a crime or terrorist attack occurs, local police (or attorneys armed with a subpoena) go from door to door to manually collect video evidence. Once they have the videos in hand, their next challenge is searching for the right “codex” to crack the dozens of different file formats they encounter so they can watch and analyze the footage.
The result of these practical barriers is that as it stands today, only people with considerable legal or political clout are able to successfully gain access into a city’s privately-owned, ad-hoc collections of public surveillance videos. Not only are cities missing the opportunity to streamline routine evidence-gathering police work, they’re missing a radically transformative benefit that would become possible once video footage from thousands of different security cameras were pooled into a single repository: the ability to apply the power of citizen eyeballs to the work of improving public safety.
Why We Need Extreme Transparency
When regular people can’t access their own surveillance videos, there can be no data justice. While we wait for the law to catch up with the reality of modern urban life, citizens and city governments should use technology to address the problem that lies at the heart of surveillance: a power imbalance between those who control the cameras and those who don’t.
Cities should permit individuals and organizations to install and deploy as many public-facing cameras as they wish, but with the mandate that camera owners must place all resulting video footage into the mercilessly bright sunshine of an open data trust. This way, cloud computing, open APIs, and artificial intelligence software can help combat abuses of surveillance and give citizens insight into who’s filming us, where, and why.
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