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Futurism and other Nonsense

One of my primary pet peeves is the hyperbolic rhetoric of technophile futurists who are convinced mankind is on the verge of some kind of technological utopia thanks to cell phones and machine learning. I admit, I’m a curmudgeon, but sometimes it’s more than I can take. Considering the zeitgeist of the age, these sorts of posts might start appearing more regularly.

There has been a particularly egregious clickbaity article circulating on social media, and after some digging I think I found the source. I figured I’d repost the entire thing and respond to each point of ridiculousness in turn. Taken from “Udo Gollub, the CEO of 17 Minute Languages“:

Into the future
By Udo Gollub at Messe Berlin, Germany

*I just went to the Singularity University summit. Here are the key points I gathered.
Rise and Fall: In 1998, Kodak had 170,000 employees and sold 85% of all photo paper worldwide. Within just a few years, their business model disappeared and they were bankrupt. What happened to Kodak will happen in a lot of industries in the next 10 years – and most people don’t see it coming. Did you think in 1998 that 3 years later you would never take pictures on paper film again?*

There is a great bit by George Carlin about one hour photo printers where he asks “how can anybody be nostalgic about a little while ago? You just saw the f–ing thing.” (Couldn’t find the original bit, working from memory). So yes, the camera industry changed very quickly, but color me bewildered by modern personal photography. I don’t understand why people take so many photos, why they have them on their phones instead of in albums, and why all these photos are so terrible. I’m looking for a few good photos to keep, preferably framed, as a connection to the past. I have three or four photos of my maternal grandmother. That’s all I need.

*Yet digital cameras were invented in 1975. The first ones only had 10,000 pixels, but followed Moore’s law. So as with all exponential technologies, it was a disappointment for a long time, before it became superior and mainstream in only a few short years. This will now happen with Artificial Intelligence, health, self-driving and electric cars, education, 3D printing, agriculture and jobs.

Welcome to the 4th Industrial Revolution. Welcome to the Exponential Age. Software and operating platforms will disrupt most traditional industries in the next 5-10 years.*

It’s important to remember the pace of change he implies. It is simply impossible for humans to keep up with this pace. Human inertia will slow some of this down, which I think will be a good thing.

*Uber is just a software tool. They don’t own any cars, but they are now the biggest taxi company in the world. Airbnb is the biggest hotel company in the world, although they don’t own any properties.*

I think the effects of the “sharing economy” are being greatly exaggerated. This tools flourished during the great recession and have continued, and that’s a good thing. However, while I may appreciate a shared ride to the airport, I don’t want to share a wardrobe or kitchen utensils.

*Artificial Intelligence: Computers become exponentially better in understanding the world. This year, a computer beat the best Go player in the world, 10 years earlier than expected. In the US, young lawyers already don’t get jobs. Because of IBM Watson, you can get legal advice, (so far for more or less basic stuff), within seconds. With 90% accuracy, compared with 70% accuracy when done by humans. So if you are studying law, stop immediately. There will be 90% fewer generalist lawyers in the future; only specialists will be needed.*

The whole AI field is a mess. Some sensationalists suggest the human species will be obsolete and our extinction is assured (humans and AI computers presumably occupy the same space in the ecosystem, and biology demands only one species can survive in each niche). Other AI specialists say AI programming and computer learning is constrained by the fact computers process information differently than humans in ways that are not well understood. I am in the camp that believes there is a qualitative difference between machines and human minds. While computers will reach the processing power of a human brain, it will never interact with the environment the way a human does, saving us from absolute obsolescence.

As for lawyers, I have to ask, when was the last time you needed legal advice? Maybe to write a will or sign real estate papers. So sure, those tasks will be automated. But if you need to face a human jury and a human judge, you’re going to need a human attorney. (I wrote about my experiences on a jury a few years ago. There’s no way a robot could have handled the complexities to the case.)

The advice is still good though, don’t go to law school. There are already enough lawyers, the school is very expensive and the pay upon graduation is surprisingly awful.

*‘Watson’ already helps nurses diagnose cancer, four times more accurately than doctors. Facebook now has pattern recognition software that can recognize faces better than humans. By 2030, computers will have become ‘more intelligent’ than humans.*

The medical profession has been in desperate need of an information technology upgrade. An AI helping doctors diagnose patients, as well as leveraging the use of statistics and data, is a positive step. The human body is incredibly complex and the base of human knowledge about the human body has exceeded the mental capacity of any living person. That said, there is no way you can replace the role of human doctors. The first problem is aggregation; on average, humans have one testical and one ovary. A human knows this is a joke, a computer doesn’t. Computers will struggle with the innate individual differences found in humans. Smoking can give teenagers lung cancer but some centenarians smoke with no ill-effect. How do you reconcile that in a computer algorithm?

I recently had a medical scare. My symptoms were associated with cancer, but after many invasive tests I was diagnosed with something innocuous. As it turned out, my symptoms didn’t quite fit my diagnosis because symptoms are irregular. They fall on a continuum and the continuum between various diseases overlap. Diseases are found in clusters. Genetics play a role. Tests are subject to error. A computer might say “there was a 20% chance you had cancer” but it took a collaborative effort between several doctors to figure out I had non-standard symptoms and get me the right diagnosis.

Let’s also say there are epistemological problems with how we define intelligence. If we’re taking just operations per second and total memory, then yes, computers will surpass humans in the coming decade. However, that’s not really what human intelligence really *is*. Humans don’t process information like computers. We have a complex web of cells, each of which is connected to thousands of other cells, synapses have hundreds of neurotransmitters and all these processes seem to be self-directed by…something. It really is quite a mystery how the human being finds meaning from the inputs given it by the senses. How can all that a human being does, including stuff like figuring out special relativity or the rules of geometry, or catching a baseball without doing calculus, be programmed?

*Cars: In 2018 the first self driving cars will be offered to the public. Around 2020, the complete industry will start to be disrupted. You don’t want to own a car anymore. You will call a car on your phone; it will show up at your location and drive you to your destination. You will not need to park it, you only pay for the driven distance and you can be productive whilst driving. Our kids will never get a driver’s licence and will never own a car. It will change the cities, because we will need 90-95% fewer cars for our future needs. We can transform former parking spaces into parks. At present,1.2 million people die each year in car accidents worldwide. We now have one accident every 100,000 kms. With autonomous driving, that will drop to one accident in 10 million km. That will save a million lives each year.*

Dumb question, if no one owns a car how will there be any autonomous cars to drive you anywhere?

This autonomous car idea sounds like a variation of the Personal Rail Transit that was fashionable in some circles a decade or so ago. It’s better because there are no rails to build. However, there are still a lot of problems. First, most people need to ride at the same time, weekdays from 6am to 9am and 4pm to 7pm. This system of magically ownerless cars works great for people with irregular schedules, but the 9-5 work crowd might as well own their own vehicles. And they’ll still need a place to park their cars because demand for autonomous cars will go down precipitously outside of rush hour. In order to change this situation, you have to change the way people work and are scheduled to work. If you’re going to do that, you might as well change it so everyone telecommutes.

*Electric cars will become mainstream around and after 2020. Cities will be cleaner and much less noisy because all cars will run on electricity, which will become much cheaper.

Most traditional car companies may become bankrupt by taking the evolutionary approach and just building better cars; while tech companies (Tesla, Apple, Google) will take the revolutionary approach and build a computer on wheels. I spoke to a lot of engineers from Volkswagen and Audi. They are terrified of Tesla.*

I have no idea how the car companies are going to react to these changes. However, it still sounds like everyone at this futurist convention believed cars would still be a primary mode of transportation in the future. Maybe Google will create a smart car that does a better job spying on their passengers, but I would bet money on car companies being strong moneymakers in a world of cars.

*Insurance companies will have massive trouble, because without accidents, the insurance will become 100 times cheaper. Their car insurance business model will disappear.*

This assumes everyone rapidly gives up driving cars. More likely this will be a slow generational change. Insurance companies will have plenty of time to diversify.

*Real estate values based on proximities to work-places, schools, etc. will change, because if you can work effectively from anywhere or be productive while you commute, people will move out of cities to live in a more rural surroundings.*

Oh, that’s right, we’re not at the part where 80% of the workforce is unemployed. Author once again assumes everyone wants the same thing, in this case they apparently want to live outside of large cities. Which is weird, since people have been moving into big cities for decades now. Personally, I’d prefer a rural homestead, but until I can buy a 3D printer that makes good pho, well, you know…

*Solar energy production has been on an exponential curve for 30 years, but only now is having a big impact. Last year, more solar energy was installed worldwide than fossil. The price for solar will drop so much that almost all coal mining companies will be out of business by 2025.*

Which is fine, coal mining is a relatively minor industry in the United States now. It’s been a decades-long process and people have had plenty of time to react to the changing job market.

*Water for all: With cheap electricity comes cheap and abundant water. Desalination now only needs 2kWh per cubic meter. We don’t have scarce water in most places; we only have scarce drinking water. Imagine what will be possible if everyone can have as much clean water as they want, for virtually no cost.*

This is great, of course.

*Health: The Tricorder X price will be announced this year – a medical device (called the “Tricorder” from Star Trek) that works with your phone, which takes your retina scan, your blood sample and your breath. It then analyses 54 biomarkers that will identify nearly any diseases. It will be cheap, so in a few years, everyone on this planet will have access to world class, low cost, medicine.*

And presumably they will also have access to all the misdiagnoses and mistakes inherent in trusting WebMD instead of a doctor. It’s great that diagnostic tests will be cheaper and easier to get, but I don’t see how it removes doctors from the equation. Something interesting I heard on Tyler Cowen’s podcast, access to medical care doesn’t necessarily produce better results. Amish and Christian Scientists have similar life expectancies to those of us who have access and use modern healthcare. I’ll have to delve into those studies sometime.

*3D printing: The price of the cheapest 3D printer came down from 18,000$ to 400$ within 10 years. In the same time, it became 100 times faster. All major shoe companies started printing 3D shoes. Spare airplane parts are already 3D-printed in remote airports. The space station now has a printer that eliminates the need for the large amount of spare parts they used to need in the past.

*At the end of this year, new smart phones will have 3D scanning possibilities. You can then 3D scan your feet and print your perfect shoe at home. In China, they have already 3D-printed a complete 6-storey office building. By 2027, 10% of everything that’s being produced will be 3D-printed.*

I’m on the fence about 3D printed stuff. I need a small part for an unusual pistol, and the part costs more than the pistol is worth. It’d be great to 3D print the part instead of having an expensive paperweight. However, I’m very sure i don’t want to live in a 3D printed home. There’s an obvious lack of craftsmanship about 3d printing, and I hate cheap crap devoid of craftsmanship.

And let me say also, if 3D printing can get me a shoe that fits comfortably and lasts longer than three months, all is forgiven.

*Business opportunities: If you think of a niche you want to enter, ask yourself: “in the future, do you think we will have that?” And if the answer is yes, then work on how you can make that happen sooner. If it doesn’t work via your phone, forget the idea. And any idea that was designed for success in the 20th century is probably doomed to fail in the 21st century.*

I like to think of “serial entrepreneurship” as the modern form of subsistence living. Everyone takes every side gig they can, just to break even. So sure, everyone is going to be doing some kind of non-salaried hustle, but it’s hardly going to make anyone rich. This point just admits that the employer/employee model of making a living is about dead (which I don’t think is necessarily true, but that’s a dark pit for another time).

Another aside: I got a smartphone about a year ago. I’m a Luddite, so I was actively avoiding it but circumstances demanded I get a new phone and the smartphone was free. Regardless, I’ve had a for about a year. I don’t understand the hype. I added a bunch of apps, most of them educational, and it’s nice. But I found that I spent most of my time scrolling through facebook and checking my email. I didn’t need a device to help me check my email more often. I guess we’ll see how people are going to leverage the ubiquitous pocket computing power in the future, but I don’t see how it’s going to revolutionize anything. As for me, I’ve caught myself checking my email so often, I’ll probably just get rid of the damn phone.

*Work: 70-80% of jobs will disappear in the next 20 years. There will be a lot of new jobs, but it is not clear that there will be enough new jobs in such a short time.

Where did that number come from? It’s well-known that driving jobs are at risk of automation in the next decade, and that’s about 45% of jobs. What else is going to disappear? Regardless, such a rapid transformation is unlikely, and we should be glad. The social unrest that would occur if 75% of the public were unemployed would be incomprehensible. During the industrial revolution, the majority of the populations in western countries went from rural agriculture to urban misery. The end result was 50 years of static wages, lower standards of living, lower quality of life, urban disease epidemics, two world wars and the rise of extremist political philosophies that resulted in the deaths of over a hundred million people outside of the world wars. When billionaires talk about Universal Basic Income, part of me wonders if they’re doing it out of self-interest.

*Agriculture: There will be a 100$ agricultural robot in the future. Farmers in 3rd world countries can then become managers of their fields instead of working in them all day. Aeroponics will need much less water. The first veal produced in a petri dish is now available. It will be cheaper than cow- produced veal in 2018. Right now, 30% of all agricultural surfaces are used for rearing cattle. Imagine if we don’t need that space anymore. There are several start-ups which will bring insect protein to the market shortly. It contains more protein than meat. It will be labelled as “alternative protein source” (because most people still reject the idea of eating insects).*

All positives. New technologies will allow more people to grow their own food on smaller and smaller plots of land. How many people will actually do that, I don’t know. From an economic perspective these changes will be difficult to predict. Having cheap robots lowers the barriers to entry, so everyone can afford to grow food commercially. This will increase demand on land, causing prices to rise. However, switching from cows to petri dish meat and insect protein will lower demand on land and demand for crops in general. Add-in all the various government subsidies and regulations and you have a mess.

*Apps: There is already an app called “moodies” which can tell the mood you are in. By 2020 there will be apps that can tell by your facial expressions if you are lying. Imagine a political debate where we know whether the participants are telling the truth and when not!*

Maybe. It’s very difficult to gauge whether a person is lying based on body language alone, and there are individual differences and contextual difficulties to deal with. Also, people can learn to lie better. A grad student I had as a teacher learned how to tell a lie and avoid detection despite being strapped into an fMRI machine. I can imagine a new industry where experts teach politicians to defeat these new technologies.

*Currencies: Many currencies will be abandoned. Bitcoin will become mainstream this year and might even become the future default reserve currency.*

These crypto-currencies are a joke. They have, in my estimation, been enjoying a rise in value thanks to speculation. Once people realize they are more devoid of value than fiat currency, they will die. I’ve never had anyone explain to me the appeal other than “computer stuff” and “anonymous transaction” both of which can be accomplished with cash. If fiat currencies fail, bitcoin will not be the saviour and it won’t matter because you’ll have lots of other problems to deal with, like war or civil unrest.

*Longevity: Right now, the average life span increases by 3 months per year. Four years ago, the life span was 79 years, now it is 80 years. The increase itself is increasing and by 2036, there will be more than a one-year increase per year. So we all might live for a long, long time, probably way beyond 100.*

This is a statistical misrepresentation. We’ve done a great job of reducing death at childbirth and death from childhood diseases. This is where a majority of the increase in life expectancy has come from. We have not appreciably increased the outbound limits of life expectancy. Basically, 0-60 years of age have seen huge gains. After 70+ years? The actuarial tables really haven’t changed. This was discussed on Tyler Cowen’s podcast with Atul Gawande

*Education: The cheapest smartphones already sell at 10$ in Africa and Asia. By 2020, 70% of all humans will own a smartphone. That means everyone will have much the same access to world class education. Every child can use Khan Academy for everything he needs to learn at schools in First World countries. Further afield, the software has been launched in Indonesia and will be released it in Arabic, Swahili and Chinese this summer. The English app will be offered free, so that children in Africa can become fluent in English within half a year.*

A lot of us have been waiting for a revolution in education. It should be here already. I’ve been self-educating on Khan Academy and studying Spanish on Duolingo for years and years now. I guess it’s personally enriching, but it hasn’t made a difference in my financial situation. I guess this is all good, but the skeptic in me doesn’t believe the hype. This goes back to the smartphone rant; yes, we all have access to an incredible vault of knowledge and endless educational opportunities. Yet, we still spend most of our time snap chatting or playing some worthless game. It’s not how many opportunities we are afforded, it’s how many we actually take.

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3 Responses

  1. There used to be a futurism where people expected advances to be shared equally. Then the future happened and we realized that the new boss looks a lot like the old boss.

    All of these advances are subject to a company, corporation or some conglomeration of confederates to extract all the value out of the proposition. Look at Uber or AirBNB, unless you’re in an optimal spot in an urban setting, it’s an after-thought, not really a revenue or income stream. Most people lose money driving with Uber, they just can’t math.

    Part of this is due to patents and copyright, but it’s also due to the nature of capitalism which discourages broad application of new technologies to enrich the masses. Looking at the real wages over the past 40 years shows that, with the possible exception of the internet and digital word processing, spreadsheets, etc., people are being impressed into slavery to a very basic middle-class existence. Those developing the truly successful apps have no interest in giving their plebe uber drivers the margin necessary for them to make it a career. It’s not meant to replace taxicabs, it’s meant to destroy the taxi industry on the backs of people willing to drive around at night and wear down their cars.

    None of these advances will connect people willing to work, with higher profits. None of these advances will take someone willing to learn a new language on duolingo, and refer them translation work. None of these advances will have someone learn a coding language on Khan Academy to give them a reliable contract coding their company’s website.

    I’d have a little more faith in cryptocurrencies, at least in their ability for the masses to preserve their wealth without having to chase returns to outpace inflation. BTC might be compromised or otherwise controlled, so it’s the only truly profitable example, but it’s also the most problematic. If there were a more diverse basket of crypto, and people could migrate en masse to dump fed dollars, it might be useful. Now, it’s just novelty.

    Anyway, most of these advances mean that Wall Street will post even better profits, as midwest unemployment goes up and the middle class’ real wages continue to decline.

  2. You hit the nail on the head on most points so I’ll just remind the futurists that the clothes I wore today (t-shirt and jeans) were created over a hundred years ago and the items I used to clean my apartment (broom and mop) were the same items used by my great-great-great grandfather.

    Just because industries are slow to adjust, doesn’t mean no one saw the trends/change coming. Kodak was an old dinosaur in 1998, not some adaptable company that overnight was made obsolete. Nothing drives me crazier than using one bad example to try and prove an already bad point.

    I’m pushing fifty and the items in my household minus my phone are not much different than the items of my childhood. Better? Yes. Different? No.

    Maybe I’m a curmudgeon too but I really don’t see the futuristic leap from a cab to an Uber. Same service, different execution. And if you get out of the major cities, Uber is useless. I don’t even envision this future a hundred years from now, much less twenty.

    I’ll take history over wishful predictions any day and in my lifetime the “future” everyone has predicted hasn’t gotten here. Not even close. Where’s my robot maid, dammit? And aren’t we supposed to be living on the moon by now?

  3. Good article Marty. If you ever heard me say “Something is coming that will solve this case in 5 minutes if we don’t” I was referring to some of that. In the Bible in the end times it say “nobody could buy or sale unless they had the mark on there hand or forehead” referring to the “mark of the beast”. I really believe the only way this is possible is through computers. If you really think about it, you can’t even stop and pump gas no more without a computer being envolved. What if you need to go to the bank and withdraw money? A computer is envolved. The Internet is the one thing that brings the whole world together. I believe Donald Trump will somehow win reelection in 2020, and the next President and perhaps the AntiChrist, will be Mark Zuckerberg. Google his dogs name and put that with his first name. Before Zuckerberg or whoever comes into power the greatest event in human history will take place. If you think the DB Cooper disappearance and Earhart disappearance were big deals, wait till millions vanish in “the blink of an eye”. Noah built an Ark and it had never rained. Get ready!

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