Films from the Future

Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies by Andrew Maynard, Mango Press, 2018, 293 pp.

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Reviewed by Katina Michael

Films from the Future is an ambitious collection of well-organised reflections that attempts to explore the technology and morality of 12 science fiction movies. It is intriguing that author Andrew Maynard has chosen to take away significant learnings from cult classics such as Minority Report that would otherwise be considered as backdrops for a dystopian future.

I was once told by Brian Cantrell of the World Building Media Lab at USC that “dystopia was easy and utopia was really hard” [i]. Cantrell’s lab director is Minority Report’s Production Designer, Alex McDowell [ii] who has given many a talk about how stories can shape the future [iii]. So I questioned from the outset how Maynard’s book might well make us stop and think and ask questions like: “how can we learn from science fiction scenarios, and how can we do better without making the same mistakes in the real world”? In essence, what is the take away message from dystopia?

To an extent, some of the visions presented by films like Minority Report, have come true. In “Can we predict when and where a crime will take place?” BBC reporter Mark Smith, takes us on a brief introduction of the capabilities of software like PredPol, Palantir, and CrimeScan [iv] but cautions we are not there yet in terms of AI-based predictive policing. But we can already contrast this retrospective hot spot analysis capability with new forms of facial recognition software detecting persons in mass crowds as has been purportedly demonstrated in China [v], and even the hope to create a crime time machine [vi].

Maynard’s book which is written in a very accessible manner, almost conversational one might say, comes with excellent sources, providing evidence to content that would otherwise be challenged by some. Maynard uses peer-reviewed papers to support claims as one would expect from an academic and former columnist for Nature Nanotechnology, but unashamedly intermingles this with references to mainstream media. There is something to be said about this methodology by an expert communicator of science in general. The further one gets into the book, the more one trusts the insights of this author implicitly asking the same questions pre-emptively: “where is all this leading us?”.

What all of the science fiction movies that Maynard has purposely hand-picked for us to engage with have in common is conflict. It is not only that these movies are couched in suspense, and are thrillers, but that their contents challenge our personal values: plainly, what is important to every one of us. They take us out of our comfort zone and somehow reinforce all that is healthy about our world, and help us to see more clearly those things that are unhealthy. In the endless possibility of technological and scientific trajectories, the reader knows instinctively which are destructive. Death is the ultimate harm, the ultimate toll humans may have to face for their discoveries; only extinction of the species can be worse. But how can we make things better for our present and generations to come?

In some way, we attempt to resolve the conflicts presented to us by analysing what are the real threats as opposed to perceived threats, and we consider suitable strategies to prevent or resolve the conflict. Science fiction also has a way of challenging government-industrial complex “group think.” In That Hideous Strength, C.S. Lewis masterfully presents a new government-funded research facility at the fictional University of Edgestow, aptly named the “National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments” (N.I.C.E.) with questions surrounding the natural limits of innovation. It takes the youthful new recruit, Mark Studdock an ambitious sociologist, to save the world from the establishment and François Alcasan whose head was recovered by the N.I.C.E. after the French scientist was murdered, and has been kept alive by technology seemingly communicating with Macrobes [vii].

Somehow at the heart of sci-fi is returning power to the people who almost always regain control before things get completely out of hand. But we learn that our freedom comes at a cost. The reassuring aspect of Maynard’s work is that justice prevails, despite the ominous lurking of some technological beast that is waiting to be unleashed, beckoning for a movie sequel. Technology and its application- at least in the interim- are restored to useful practice and people marshal towards hopeful and sustainable futures.

The deeper one gets into Films from the Future, the more one questions why these 12 movies. What is so special about them? What unfolds is a narrative that builds one layer on top of the other, and a chronological thematic inquiry that reaches its climax in chapter 13 dedicated to Contact. Maynard takes us on a fantastical ride through time- from what looks to be about the beginning and the presence of dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, to the potential for human cloning in Never Let Me Go, to artificial intelligence, the advent of bioprinting, human augmentation and genetic engineering, to an age of singularity in Transcendence, climate change and finally considering the vast expanse that is space. It is as if the Creation story plays out, and then a doomsday Apocalypse threatens, only for humans to search beyond earth and into the stars for their ultimate glory.

Some readers would have watched perhaps a few of the sci-fi films selected by Maynard like Ex Machina, but Films from the Future is also set to encourage a whole new following of lesser known movies like The Man in the White Suit that depicts the struggle between an innovator and the unintended consequences his innovation causes.

About the only thing I can be critical of Mango Press about is the absence of a few images that might well have been able to bring the book to life in a different way; and perhaps some select quotations from the featured films that may have been interweaved into Maynard’s narrative or noted in the margins. I admit I love direct quotes!

One thing for certain Maynard presents an excellent summation of the topics that will invariably always preoccupy humankind. Inherent in all of this book are issues of control and risk. Students in particular will be served well in interdisciplinary courses that interrogate the subject matter from a variety of lenses- social, technical, ethical, and legal. And the book provides a starting point for the study of the future. One of the best summaries I’ve come across. 

Reviewer: Katina Michael is a Professor in the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering at Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona. katina.michael@asu.edu

 

References

[i] Katina Michael interviews Brian Cantrell, May 22, 2016, “Makoko 2036”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-SntGFlz7Ro [Accessed October 30, 2018].

[ii] Laura Cechanowicz, Brian Cantrell, and Alex McDowell, “World Building and the Future of Media: Makoko 2036”, IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, December 2016, https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/stamp/stamp.jsp?arnumber=7790997 [Accessed October 30, 2018].

[iii] Jamie Matroos, September 1, 2016, “Alex McDowell on telling stories that shape the future”, Design Indaba, http://www.designindaba.com/videos/conference-talks/alex-mcdowell-telling-stories-shape-future [Accessed October 30, 2018].

[iv] Mark Smith, October 30, 2018, “Can we predict when and where a crime will take place?”, BBC News, https://www.bbc.com/news/business-46017239# [Accessed October 30, 2018].

[v] Paul Mozur, July 8, 2018, “Inside China’s Dystopian Dreams: A.I., Shame and Lots of Cameras”, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/08/business/china-surveillance-technology.html [Accessed October 30, 2018].

[vi] John Hollenhorst, September 28, 2017, “Crime time machines adds to security, privacy debate”, KSL.com, https://www.ksl.com/?sid=45975124&nid=148 [Accessed October 30, 2018].

[vii] C.S. Lewis, 1945 (repub. 2003), That Hideous Strength, Scribner, New York, 384pp.

Citation: Book Reviewer Katina Michael. 2018. “Films from the Future” by Andrew Maynard, Mangro Press, 2018. Accepted, pending publication in IEEE Technology and Society Magazine.

Not So Fast (book review)

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Not So Fast: Thinking Twice about Technology. By Doug Hill. Univ. of Georgia Press, Oct. 15, 2016, 240 pp.

In 2014, I had the good fortune of meeting Doug Hill in the flesh at the first IEEE Conference on Norbert Wiener in the 21st Century (http://21stcenturywiener.org/). It was one of the highlights of the conference for me. I was attracted to Doug because of his outward simplicity but at the same time deep inner profundity. It did not take long for us to get talking of our mutual interests. For instance, we've both been influenced greatly by the French philosopher, sociologist and lay theologian Jacques Ellul [1], popularly known for The Technological Society (1964) [2], [3]. Hill is an investigative journalist by training, an award winning writer [4], with a specialization on the philosophy of technology.

In Not So Fast, Hill wastes no time in getting his point across. Chapter 1 opens: “Let me begin by stating the obvious: We live in an era of technological enthusiasm.” In his book, Hill attempts the impossible and pulls it off. He hits us with the hard facts, one after the other. And we can either take his word for it, or refute him page after page, until we realize, that the evidence is overwhelmingly stacked against us. In effect, Hill tells us “where we are at” with all this techno-deluge, even if we don't wish to admit it. He makes a point of highlighting the technological utopianism we have begun to believe and dream about, only to bring us down crashing the very next moment with the startling realities.

“Lively, fast moving, always entertaining,’Not So Fas’ offers a grand overview of the extravagant hopes and dire warnings that accompany the arrival of powerful new technologies. Blending the key ideas of classic and contemporary thinkers, Doug Hill explores the aspirations of those who strive for the heavens of artifice and those who find the whole enterprise a fool’s errand. This is the most engaging, readable work on the great debates in technology criticism now available and a solid contribution to that crucial yet unsettling tradition.”

—Langdon Winner, author of Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought; Professor, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

The book contains quotes from people we all look up to in the tech and business world, representing thousands of hours of research to craftily support the central thesis: “not so fast.” Hill proclaims in no uncertain words, that we have lost control over the very creations we have built to make life better for us. Somewhere along the way we have become emotionally attached to our technologies; rather than being extensions of us, it seems we have become extensions of them.

But for Hill. it's not all about the bling, and high-tech gadgetry. For Hill, it is more than being enslaved into a life of upgrades, although he does question the practices of Silicon Valley - the preoccupation of building the ultimate immortal man who can live forever through AI and some sort of fantastical Singularity [5], [6]. Hill doesn't just stop there. He looks for the underlying causes to why our climate has changed so detrimentally, the very processes that didn't begin with the introduction of smartphones or social media, but of events from hundreds of years ago. Indirectly, Hill entices the reader to scratch beneath the surface and think about the “how” and “why.”

In a somewhat prophetic voice, Hill arrives at the conclusion that if we are going to reverse things that we might as well begin now. What he's really talking about is the mystery of technology. Hill doesn't shun its value but he declares that we have to put it in its place, before it puts us in a place of no return. His is a voice of one crying in the wilderness, but he is not alone. The reader, no sooner reads a few more of Hill's chapters, and finds herself admitting what she's always known: “Technology doesn't always mean progress. In fact, sometimes it has some very ugly intended and unintended consequences.” In short, we gotta be alert and awake. But even more than that!

Hill digs deep and unravels the inherent qualities of technology, and proceeds to make us aware of the happenings around us [7]. Readers will be all the more enlightened to learn about some of Hill's conclusions, through practical examples in everyday life:

  1. The technological imperative. “Our entire way of life - the social fabric in which we live - is utterly, completely dependent on technology,” says Hill. “To free ourselves of that dependence would be so disruptive that economic and social chaos would result.”

  2. Technological momentum. “There's a simpler reason technologies become intractable: it's too hard to change them. We're stuck with the infrastructure we have,” Hill says. “For example, it's not easy to replace a city's sewer system from scratch.”

  3. Convergence and diffusion. “Technologies are communicable; they spread like viruses. They converge with other technologies and diffuse into unexpected areas,” says Hill. “Bronze casting methods first used to make church bells were soon used to make canons, for example. Today automation techniques - robots - are diffusing daily into ever-more industries and applications, from assembly of everything from cars and smartphones to the handling of banking transactions.”

  4. Speed. “Regulation is slow; technologies are fast,” says Hill. “So it is that governments are frequently unable to effectively control technological development. Hundreds of companies today are feverishly working to exploit the commercial potential of nanotechnology and synthetic biology, for example, despite the fact that no one is certain either technology is safe.”

 

“This is the technology criticism I’ve been waiting for - aware of the history of technology criticism and the history of changing attitudes toward technology, and at the same time attuned to contemporary developments. Not So Fast is readable, meticulously sourced, and, above all - nuanced. I recommend it for technology critics and enthusiasts alike.”

—Howard Rheingold, Internet pioneer and author of Tools for Thought, The Virtual Community, Smart Mobs, and “Net Smart”

In his conclusion, Hill isn't very optimistic about where we are at and he certainly doesn't give us any tangible or pragmatic ways to combat the predicament that society finds itself in. And yet, perhaps that has left the door open to a sequel, possibly about a resurgence in technology assessment, about the importance of resistance, and breaking with the belief that technology can do no evil.

Is the path we are on, really that irreversible? Are we headed down a road of inevitabilities, locked-in on auto-pilot? Or are there strategies we might be able to employ right now, as interlinked local communities that make up a collective global consciousness? We have the power, are we willing participants? How much do we care about the future to get involved?

Hill warns: “There's more to turning off machines than hitting a switch… We are deeply, intimately tied to our technologies, in all sorts of practical and emotional ways. To give them up would be literally life-threatening. That's why many experts believe our technologies have become'autonomous.’”

I give this book 5 stars not only because it is masterfully written - the reader feels like they have known Hill for years, a faint voice in the back of their head reaffirming truisms - but because it reveals socio-technical patterns and trends happening all round us. Hill also makes observations about things that others would at best say to leave alone.

“Doug Hill’s insights into technology are both original and profound. I’ve travelled in the highest reaches of the tech world for more than twenty years, and I still learned much from this book. He will be recognized as a leading thinker on technology and its impact on our world. In an industry that too seldom stops to think through the implications of the products we produce, his is a voice we need to hear.”

—Allen Noren, vice president of online, O’Reilly Media

It's time for those brave conversations, about technology in our homes and our schools, about technology in our industrial and military sectors, about what we should be pooling our resources into to ensure environmental sustainability, and about what should be better left alone. Whether hype or hope, we've embraced a pseudo-truth, that our human salvation will come from technology, abandoning myths 2000 years old.

And while Hill does not make reference to this specifically, I think we are unashamedly worshipping at the foot of technology, believing this will be our ultimate destiny, our chance to live forever on earth. And yet, our sensibilities should tell us that eternal life on earth, would be not unlike living in an endless loop, and as spiritual beings, get us nowhere. I return back to those fundamental human principles, are we bettering ourselves, our nature, because we are surrounded by so much technology, or are we just becoming less able to discern the good from the bad, the useful from the useless. And who or what is behind that wheel driving us to our destinies? It's time to get back in control.

Citation: Katina Michael, 2017, Book Review on Doug Hill's "Not So Fast", IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, 36(2), pp. 24-26.

Gone Fishing

Figure 1. Packing for a full month away. Everything but the kitchen sink.

Figure 1. Packing for a full month away. Everything but the kitchen sink.

On the 9th of December in 2015, I set out for a camping trip with my three young children to the Sapphire Coast of Australia, toward the New South Wales and Victorian border (Figure 1). The last time I had driven through this stunning part of the world, was when my parents decided to take their four children across country in a Ford Cortina station wagon to visit their first cousins on apricot and citrus farms in South Australia.

I turned eight years of age over that summer, and the memories of that trip are etched into our hearts. We've laughed countless times over events on that holiday, all of which were borne from a “lack of access” to technology, resulting in “close-ess” and “togetherness.” Loxton, South Australia, only had two television channels back then-the ABC news, and 5A which showed endless games and replays of cricket. While we grew to love cricket — we had no choice - we welcomed every opportunity to physically help our cousins gather fruit using nothing but ladders and our bare hands.

It was the festive season, and I remember lots and lots of family gatherings, parties, and outdoor lamb-spit barbecues. We gathered to eat, and dance, and our elders reminisced over what life was like in the village in Greece, and tell us funny stories about growing up with hardly any material possessions. Highlights included: when a photographer visited the village once every other year to take pictures with his humungous boxed contraption, which he would hide behind; the memory of the first time a car was spotted trying to come into the village; walking to school one hour away with shoes made out of goat skin (if not barefoot); and the harsh unheated winters and boiling hot summers over scenic Sparta.

It was a kind of celebration of life when I think back. It was so carefree, clean and pure, and joyous! Everyone lived in the moment. No one took pictures of their food to post to Instagram, no one had their head buried in front of a screen watching YouTube on demand, and we were outside in the fresh air awestruck by the beauty of the glistening stars that shone so bright in the night sky (and getting bitten by mosquitos while doing so). It was a kind of SnapChat without the “Snap.” On that trip I gained an appreciation for the land, and its importance in sustaining us as human beings.

As I reflect on that time, we travelled through remote parts of Australia with nothing but ourselves. We were too poor to stay at hotels, so dad ingeniously turned our station-wagon into a caravan, or so it seemed to us when the back seat folded forward and the travelling bags were placed on the roof rack secured with a blue tarpaulin.

Figure 2. The great Australian outdoor toilet, proverbially known as a “dunny” Used in one camp site the kids endearingly nicknamed “Kalaru Poo.”

Figure 2. The great Australian outdoor toilet, proverbially known as a “dunny” Used in one camp site the kids endearingly nicknamed “Kalaru Poo.”

We had no mobile phone in the car, no portable wifi-enabled tablet, no gaming DS, and certainly no down-screen DVD player or in-car navigation system to interrupt the ebb and flow of a family confined to a small space for six weeks. Mum would put on a few Greek cassettes for us to sing along to (Dad's “best ofs” which he had dubbed from the radio), and we paid particular attention to the landscape and wildlife. Mum would tell stories nostalgically about the time before we were born and how she left her homeland at seventeen on her own. And dad would talk about the struggles of losing his mother just before the start of World War II, and how his schooling was interrupted in third class as towns were burned to the crisp by the invaders, and how lucky we were to have a chance at education in a peaceful nation. All the while my brother Arthur was pointing at how far we had driven with his AO mapliterally thousands of kilometres-which gave me a great sense of space and time that has stayed with me to this day. And of course, I do recollect the unforgettable chant of my little sister and big sister in near unison, “are we there yet?”

Last December 2015, after a demanding year in my various roles that included bi-monthly long-haul travel, I was determined to “shut down” the outside world, and give my children what my parents had given me, in all the same simplicity (Figure 2). I somehow needed to give my children my full attention for a four-week duration without a laptop in tow, ensuring that my body and mind would recover from the year that was. I knew I was drifting into overload in September 2015, when on one occasion, I found myself asking my husband which side of the road I should be driving on, even when I was in my home town.

Figure 3. The most spectacular and secluded Nelson Beach down the trail of Nelson Lake Rd near Mogareeka, NSW.

Figure 3. The most spectacular and secluded Nelson Beach down the trail of Nelson Lake Rd near Mogareeka, NSW.

Figure 4. My youngest walking near the most spectacular Wallagoot Gap. We spent the day out at this magical place, swimming with the fish.

Figure 4. My youngest walking near the most spectacular Wallagoot Gap. We spent the day out at this magical place, swimming with the fish.

When one loves life and what they do, it is easy to feel so energized that you don't feel the need to stop… but “stop” I did. I wanted to reconnect with the natural environment in a big way, with my kids, and my inner self. I found myself asking those deep questions about creation - who, what, when, how? What an incredible world we live in! How does it all work and hang together as it does? I felt so thankful. Thankful for my family, my friends, my work, nature, life, Australia. It is so easy to take it for granted.

Each day, we'd choose a different place to visit, not excluding unsealed roads that led to secluded beaches, lakes, and inlets (Figures 3 and 4). Every morning we were awakened by the birdlife - a strange creature would call out at 4:30 a.m. for about 15 minutes straight, and then give it a rest; spotted lizards a few meters long on the road, and lots of kangaroos coming out of hiding at dusk to socialize. While we swam we could see the fish in the sea (with and without snorkels), and we got to speak with complete strangers, feeling like we had all the time in the world to do so.

At historical places, we learned about indigenous people like “King Billy” of the Yuin clan who would often be seen walking unheard distances in the 1950s in the dense shrub between Jervis Bay and Eden − 300 km (Figure 5).

 

Figure 5. The Yuin people (aka Thurga) are the Australian Aborigines from the South Coast of New South Wales. At top are images of legendary “King Billy” as he was nicknamed.

Figure 5. The Yuin people (aka Thurga) are the Australian Aborigines from the South Coast of New South Wales. At top are images of legendary “King Billy” as he was nicknamed.

My kids began to make comments about how resourceful the aborigines would have been, catching fresh fish, making new walking tracks, and being blessed to live in a pristine world before the built environment changed it so radically (Figure 5). It was not difficult for me to imagine throwing in my current lifestyle for the serenity, peace, and tranquillity of the bush. The kids and I would be outside under the sun for at least 12 hours each day, and it was effortless and filled with activities, and so very much fulfilling (Figure 6).

Figure 6.  The sun setting on New Year's Eve celebrations in 2015 in Merimbula, NSW

Figure 6. The sun setting on New Year's Eve celebrations in 2015 in Merimbula, NSW

Figure 7. Pre-bedtime entertainment in our tent. Another game of Snakes & Ladders anyone?

Figure 7. Pre-bedtime entertainment in our tent. Another game of Snakes & Ladders anyone?

The kids didn't watch any television on this trip even though they had access to it in one camp spot (Figure 7). I spoke on the cell phone only a handful of times, and on some days I did not use electricity (they were my favorite days). Many times we did not have any cell phone coverage for large parts of the day. I learnt some important things about each of my children on this trip and about myself and the world we live in (Figure 8). And I'd love to do it all again, sooner than later.

We've been sold the idea that technology provides security for us but I am of the opinion that at least psychologically it leads to insecurity (1). It is a paradox. My eldest kept asking what we would do if we got a flat tire or engine trouble deep down a dirt road where we had no connectivity, or what we'd do in the event of a bushfire (Figure 9). Good questions I thought, and answered them by driving more slowly and carefully, avoiding sharp rocks and potholes, and more than anything, turning to prayer “God, keep me and my children safe. Help us not to panic at a time of trouble, and to know what to do. Help us not to be harmed. And help us not to have fear.” For all intense and purposes, technology which has been sold to us for security, breeds a false sense of security and even greater fear. We have learned to rely on mobile phones or the Internet, even when we don't need them. It has become a knee-jerk reaction, even if we have the stored information at hand readily available.

 

Figure 8. The kids posing for a photo with a big snail at Merimbula's Main Beach. Such a great opportunity for all of us to bond even closer together.

Figure 8. The kids posing for a photo with a big snail at Merimbula's Main Beach. Such a great opportunity for all of us to bond even closer together.

I am thankful I turned to art on this trip - a decision I made a few days before I left my home (see cover image of this issue). I loved speaking to real people, in person, and asking them to participate (2). Being able to hear their laughs, and see the expressions on their faces, and listen to their respective stories was so satisfying. On a few occasions I embraced people I met after opening my heart to life matters, challenges, joys, and sorrows. The cool thing? I met lots of people that reminded me of my mum and dad; lots of people who had three or four or more (or no) children - and felt connected more than ever before to the big family we call “society.” We'd sit around at the beach, at the rock pool, or the camp site, listening and learning from one another, and somehow indirectly encouraging one another onwards. We soon realized these were shared experiences and there was a solidarity, a “oneness,” an empathy between us.

Figure 9. Going down a steep and narrow unsealed road with lots of potholes at Mimosa Rocks National Park. One way down and only one way up.

Figure 9. Going down a steep and narrow unsealed road with lots of potholes at Mimosa Rocks National Park. One way down and only one way up.

We returned home a few days early due to heavy rains, and unexpectedly I did not feel the drive to return to my email trove that I figured had grown substantially in size. The thought crossed my mind that I could get heavily depressed over the thousands of messages I had missed. But I controlled that temptation. The last thing I wanted at that point was to get bogged down again in the rhythm of the digital world. Friends and colleagues might have been shocked that I did as I said I would do - utterly disconnect - but I learned something very fundamental… time away from the screen makes us more human as it inevitably brings us closer together, closer to nature, and also brings things into perspective.

Depending on our work, we can feel captive behind the screen at times, or at least to the thousands of messages that grace our laptops and mobile phones. They make us even more digital and mechanical - in intonation, action, even movement and thought. Breaking with this feeling and regaining even a little bit of control back is imperative every so often, lest we become machine-like ourselves. It is healthy to be “Just human,” without the extensions and the programs. In fact, it is essential to revitalize us and help us find our place in the world, as sometimes technology leads us too quickly ahead of even ourselves.

While it is an intuitive thing to do, you might find yourself having to work that little bit harder to make the unplugged time happen. But breaking free of all the tech (and associated expectations) occasionally, reinforces what it once meant to be human.

References

1. M. Lacy, "Cities of panic and siege psychosis" in Security Technology and Global Politics: Thinking with Virilio, New York, NY:Routledge, pp. 69f, 2014.

2. K. Michael, "Unintended consequences 1–100", [online] Available: http://www.katinamichael.com/call-for-papers/2016/1/14/unintended-consequences-1-100-artwork.

Citation: Katina Michael, "Gone Fishing: Breaking with the Biometric Rhythm of Tech-Centricism", IEEE Technology and Society Magazine ( Volume: 35, Issue: 4, Dec. 2016 ), pp. 6 - 9, Date of Publication: 19 December 2016, DOI: 10.1109/MTS.2016.2618738.

Beyond Human: Lifelogging and Life Extension

I have often wondered what it would be like to rid myself of a keyboard for data entry, and a computer screen for display. Some of my greatest moments of reflection are when I am in the car driving long distances, cooking in my kitchen, watching the kids play at the park, waiting for a doctor's appointment, or on a plane thousands of meters above sea level. I have always been great at multitasking, but at these times it is often not practical or convenient to be head down typing on a laptop, tablet, or smartphone.

It would be much easier if I could just make a mental note to record an idea and have it recorded, there and then. And who wouldn't want the ability to “jack into” all the world's knowledge sources in an instant via a network [1]? Who wouldn't want instant access to their life-pages filled with all those memorable occasions? Or even the ability to slow down the process of aging [2], as long as living longer equated to living with mind and body fully intact.

Transhumanists would have us believe that these things are not only possible but inevitable.

In short: we Homo sapiens may dictate the next stage of our evolution through our use of technology.

Transhumanism

Shortly after starting my Ph.D., I came across a newly established organization known as the World Transhumanist Association (WTA), now known as Humanity+ (H+), which was founded by Nick Bostrom and David Pearce.

Point 8 of the Transhumanist Declaration states [3]:

“We favour allowing individuals wide personal choice over how they enable their lives. This includes use of techniques that may be developed to assist memory, concentration, and mental energy; life extension therapies; reproductive choice technologies; cryonics procedures; and many other possible human modification and enhancement technologies.”

First let us consider briefly the traditional notion of a cyborg, part man/part machine, where technology can act to replace the need for human parts.

Steve Mann: “Here's a picture I took of my neckworn camera in 1998, along with other similar more recent devices. The 1998 camera was a “wearable wireless webcam” that had various other sensors in it as well. The microsoft sensecam picture I took in a similar style, and over the years various other products became available. The most recent picture I actually took in exactly the same location as my original camera necklace dome 15 years earlier: 2nd floor of university of toronto bookstore, St. george street entrance.

Steve Mann: “Here's a picture I took of my neckworn camera in 1998, along with other similar more recent devices. The 1998 camera was a “wearable wireless webcam” that had various other sensors in it as well. The microsoft sensecam picture I took in a similar style, and over the years various other products became available. The most recent picture I actually took in exactly the same location as my original camera necklace dome 15 years earlier: 2nd floor of university of toronto bookstore, St. george street entrance.

In this instance, some might willingly undergo surgical amputations for reasons of enhancement and longevity which have naught to do with imminent medical prosthesis.

This might include the ability to get around the “wetware” of the brain, enabling our minds to be downloaded onto supercomputers.

Homo Electricus

Perhaps those who love the look and feel of their human body more than machinery would much rather contemplate a world dominated by a Homo Electricus – a human that will use electro-magnetic techniques for ambient communication with networks [4].

An Electrophorus is thus one who becomes a bearer of technology, inviting nano-and micro-scale devices into his or her body.

An Electrophorus might also use brain-wave techniques, such as the electroencephalogram (EEG), which measures the electrical activity of the brain in order to perform actions by thinking about them [5].

This might be the best approach to retaining our inner thoughts for recollection though there are myriad vital issues related to security, access control, and privacy that must be addressed first.

Lifelogging

Twenty years ago, when I was still in high school, I would observe my headmaster, who was not all that fond of computers, walking around the playground carrying a tiny Dictaphone in his hands recording things for himself so that he could recollect them afterwards.

When I once asked him why he was engaging in this act, he said:

“Ah … there are so many things to remember! Unless I record them I forget them.”

He was surely onto something. His job required him to remember minute details that necessitated recollection.

Enter Steve Mann in the early 1990s, enrolled in a Ph.D. program at M.I.T. Media Labs and embarking on a project to record his whole life – himself, everyone else, and mostly everything in his field of view, 24/7 [6].

At the time it would have sounded ludicrous to want to record your “whole life,” as Professor Mann puts it. With Mann's wearcam devices (such as Eyetap), one can walk around recording, exactly like a mobile CCTV. The wearer becomes the photoborg.

It is an act Mann has called “sousveillance,” which equates to “watching from below” [7].

This is as opposed to watching from above, like when we are surveilled by CCTV stuck on a building wall such as in George Orwell's dystopic Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Since Mann's endeavor there have been many who have chosen this kind of blackbox recorder lifestyle, and more recently even Google has thrown in their Glass Project equivalent [8].

My guess is that we are about to walk into an era of Person View systems that will show things on ground level through the eyes of our social network, beyond just Street View fly-throughs [9].

Other notable lifeloggers include Gordon Bell of Microsoft [10] and Cathal Gurrin from Dublin City University [11].

M.I.T. researcher Deb Roy lifelogged his son's first year of life (with exceptions) by wiring up his home with video cameras [12].

When we talk about big data, you can't get any bigger than this [13] – chunky multimedia, chunky files of all types from a multitude of sensors, and chunky data ripe for analysis (by police, the government, your boss, and potentially anyone).

But I have often wondered where these individuals have drawn the line – at which occasions they choose to “switch off” the camera, and why [14].

This glogging still does not satisfy the possibility that I might be able to retain and indeed download all my thoughts for retrieval later [15].

A series of still photographs and continuous footage does help me to remember people I've met, things I've shared, knowledge I've gained, and feelings I've experienced. However, lifelogging is limited and cannot record the thoughts I have had at every moment in my life.

In addition, there is an innate problem with recording all my thoughts automatically with some kind of futuristic digital neural network: I would not want every thought I have ever had to be recorded [16].

Let's face it, no-one is perfect and sometimes we think silly things that we would never want stored, shared with others or replayed back to us [17].

These are thoughts which are apt to be misconstrued or misinterpreted, even perhaps in an e-court. We also do and say things at times which may not be criminal but are not the best practice for family, friends, colleagues, or even strangers to witness.

And there are those moments of heartbreak and horror alike that we would never wish to replay for reasons we might be overcome with grief and become chronically depressed.

The beginning and end of Ingmar Bergman's film Persona is reminiscent of a longitudinal glog [18]. See also “The Entire History of You” in the Black Mirror [16] available for download at https://archive.org/details/BlackMirror-Series. Directed by Brian Welsh and written by Jesse Armstrong and Charlie Brooker, the movie depicts the future, thanks to the “Grain,” a chip which can be implanted on a hard drive in the brain, with every single action that a person makes being recorded and played back at a later time.

Is More than Human Better?

Evolving in ways that could better our lives can only be a good thing. But evolving to a stage where we humans become something other than human could be less desirable.

Dangers could include:

  • electronic viruses,

  • virtual crimes (such as getting your e-life deleted, rewritten, rebooted, or stolen),

  • having your freedom and autonomy hijacked because you are at the mercy of so called smart grids.

Whatever the likelihood of these potentialities, they too, together with all of the positives, need to be interrogated.

Ultimately we need to be extremely careful that any artificial intelligence we invite into our bodies does not submerge the human consciousness and, in doing so, rule over it.

Remember, in Mary Shelley's 1816 novel Frankenstein, it is Victor Frankenstein, the mad scientist, who emerges as the true monster, not the giant who wreaks havoc when he is rejected.

References

1. W. Gibson, Neuromancer, Ace, 1984.
2. A. de Grey, "A roadmap to end aging", TED, 2007, [online] Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8iYpxRXlboQ/.
3. "Transhumanist Declaration", humanity, 2012, [online] Available: http://humanityplus.org/philosophy/transhumanist-declaration/.
4. K. Michael, M.G. Michael, "Homo Electricus and the continued speciation of humans" in The Encyclopaedia of Information Ethics and Security, IGI Global, pp. 312-318, 2007.
5. K.D. Stephan, K. Michael, M.G. Michael, L. Jacob, E. Anesta, "Social Implications of Technology: Past Present and Future", Proc. IEEE, vol. 100, no. 13, pp. 1752-1781, 2012.
6. S. Mann, D. RikkeFriis, , "Wearable computing" in The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction, Interaction Design Foundation, 2013.
7. S. Mann, "Through the glass lightly", IEEE Technology & Society Mag., vol. 2, pp. 10-14, 2012.
8. "Project Glass: One day…", Google, 2012, [online] Available: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9c6W4CCU9M4/.
9. Map My Tracks, 2010, [online] Available: http://www.mapmytracks.com/blog/entry/new-feature-street-view-and-google-earth-fly-through-bring-your-activities-to-life/.
10. G. Bell, Microsoft Research Silicon Valley, 2013, [online] Available: http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/um/people/gbell/.
11. C. Gurrin, Lecturer at Dublin City University, 2013, [online] Available: http://www.computing.dcu.ie/~cgurrin/.
12. D. Roy, "The birth of a word", TED, [online] Available: http://www.ted.com/talks/deb_roy_the_birth_of_a_word.
13. K. Michael, K. Miller, "Big data: New opportunities and new challenges", IEEE Computer, vol. 46, no. 6, pp. 22-24, 2013.
14. K. Michael, M.G. Michael, "No limits to watching?", Commun. ACM, vol. 56, no. 11, pp. 26-28, 2013.
15. S. Mann, "MetaSpaceglasses now available to CYBORGloggers interested in becoming AR developers", glogger.mobi, [online] Available: http://glogger.mobi/.
16. C. Brooker, "Episode 3 - The entire history of you", Black Mirror, 2011, [online] Available: http://www.channel4.com/programmes/black-mirror/4od#3327868.
17. M.G. Michael, K. Michael, "The fallout from emerging technologies: On matters of surveillance social networks and suicide", IEEE Technology and Society Mag., vol. 30, no. 3, pp. 13-17, 2011.
18. I. Bergman, Persona, 1966, [online] Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vMfqSuRlerU.
19. Inside cover art Frankenstein, 1831, [online] Available: http://www.archive.org/details/ghostseer01schiuoft.

ACKNOWLEDGMENT

“The author would like to thank her fellow collaborator Dr. MG Michael, an honorary associate professor at the University of Wollongong, NSW, Australia, for his insights and valuable input on the initial draft of this article.

This article was first published under the title “People plus: Is transhumanism the next stage in our evolution?” in The Conversation, Oct. 29, 2012. The original article can be found at https://theconversation.com/people-plus-is-transhumanism-the-next-stage-in-our-evolution-9771.

IEEE Keywords: Transhuman, Social implications of technology, Electromagnetic devices, Human factors

Citation: Katina Michael, "Beyond Human: Lifelogging and Life Extension", IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, Vol. 33, No. 2, 2014, pp. 4-6.

Putting Technology into Perspective in Asia

With almost four billion people, Asia comprises about 55% of the world's population and 45% of the world's Internet users [1]. Internet penetration in Asia is estimated at almost 28% compared with the rest of the world at 43% [2]. The number of mobile users in Asia at the end of 2012 was estimated at about 3.2 billion subscribers. Eighteen countries in Asia have saturated mobile markets exceeding 100% penetration, while Macau and Hong Kong have mobile penetration levels of more than 200% [3]. India and China account for over 60% of the telecommunications market in Asia which is why so many companies are vying to be there.

But all of this needs to be factored against some humbling statistics. For example, 66.7% of people living in South Asia in 2010 earned less than$2 a day compared with 30% in East Asia and the Pacific [4]. According to the World Bank, more than a third of these people did not earn more than$1.25 a day, placing them below the poverty line. An estimated 80–90% of this population is rural, with rural poverty especially endemic in Southern Asia [5]. However, between 1990 and 2008 the number of people living in poverty in the world halved [6]. One question to ponder is how much of this reduction in poverty was as a direct result of technology?

When I worked for Nortel in Asia I had the opportunity to study voice and data teletraffic flow maps published by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). I was always intrigued by the fact that thick arrows representing large volumes showed information flowing in and out of developed nations [7]. Poorer nations in Asia and Africa especially had very thin flows. Sometimes this signified that a market was predominantly “closed” and had not yet formally deregulated, or that internal conflict caused it to remain troubled instead of outward looking and global. The poverty cycle, also known as a spiral, is difficult to break. Initiatives like one laptop per child (OLPC) surely provide hope [8], as do open data initiatives to give access to information to anyone who has an Internet connection of any type [9]. However when there is no one to pay the electricity bill or to even guarantee the underlying infrastructure, even these promising ventures will fall short.

There are numerous ways to consider technology within a framework of progress. For example, some point to genetically modified (GM) crops that can provide food for those in need [10]; enabling technologies in the manufacturing industry giving workers a chance to earn a living; transportation technology like containers on ships and rail that enable global supply chain processes; sophisticated private and public exchange banking systems that allow for electronic commerce from anywhere in the world; and a high tech industry that is continually reinventing itself with new innovations to keep the retail sector moving.

Nonetheless, resources are limited as populations continue to rise at an increasing rate in developing nations, placing pressure on fossil fuel reserves. On the one hand these limited resources have meant that we are continually seeking to harness new alternative means of energy such as solar and wind, but on the other hand, we may be quickly approaching a crisis far greater than that of the 1973 oil embargo and subsequent stock market crash, if we do not back renewable resource initiatives with serious and ongoing research funding.

The externalities of technology are not only felt on a global scale with respect to climate change as a direct result of carbon emissions, but are vividly obvious in other activities from the exportation of e-waste disposal to countries like Bangladesh and Nepal, and in the contamination of waterways through industrial chemical waste within organizations situated within Asia and Africa [11].

In other cases, technology change has equated to business process optimization so harsh on employees that inhumane practices have been discovered in sweat shops and white good manufacturing lines. We might be paying significantly reduced prices for our computers, toasters, and clothes, but somewhere up the “chain” someone has had to get the component parts to a finished good. We have a responsibility to ensure that child workers are not being exploited on cocoa farms to bring us our favorite chocolate bars, and that pregnant female workers are not bound to their sewing machines from dawn to dusk, among a great many other worker issues.

I observe around my neighborhood during rubbish collection days, electrical appliances such as printers, abandoned on the roadside because it is cheaper to purchase a brand new one than to take the effort in purchasing color toner and installing it for use. Little by little we have become the throw-away generation, and the side effects from this thoughtless consumerism will cost us heavily in years to come. How much more prevalent this behavior might become with the onset of 3D printers and downloadable computer-aided designs (CAD) is anyone's guess.

While I do not wish to cast any shadow on this significant special issue dedicated to “Technology and Society in Asia” for which I thank the tremendous efforts of ISTAS12 organizers Greg Adamson, Michael Arnold, Sophie McKenzie, and guest editors Martin Gibbs, Philip Hall, and Shiro Uesugi, a counter-balance is necessary to place the special issue in perspective [12]. Yes, technology is the answer to so many of our problems today, but it can also be the source of our woes. That which has had such a positive impact on the production functions of so many processes, i.e., technology, can also carry with it negative intangible and hidden costs to the individual, the household, the factory, and society at large. We need to think past the first ripple effect, to far-reaching consequences, ensuring that we take the longer-term view, before that which immediately benefits profit margins.

References

1. United Nations Population Information Network, 2009, [online] Available: http://www.un.org/popin/data.html.

2. Internet World Stats: Usage and Population Statistics, 2013, [online] Available: http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats3.htm.

3. P. Evans, P. Budde, "Asia-Mobile broadband and digital economy overview", BuddeComm, 2012, [online] Available: http://www.budde.com.au/Research/Asia-Mobile-Broadband-and-Digital-Economy-Overview.html.

4. "Poverty and equity data", The World Bank, 2013, [online] Available: http://data.worldbank.org/topic/poverty.

5. "Rural Poverty Portal: Asia", International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), 2009, [online] Available: http://www.ruralpovertyportal.org/region/home/tags/asia.

6. M. Tuck, "Poverty Reduction and Equity", The World Bank, 2013, [online] Available: http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/TOPICS/EXTPOVERTY/.

7. "Measuring the Information Society" in International Telecommunications Union, 2012.

8. one.laptop.org, OLPC Foundation.

9. Interaction Design Foundation.

10. S.K. Moore, E. Strickland, "GM foods grow up", IEEE Spectrum, 2013, [online] Available: http://spectrum.ieee.org/energy/environment/gm-foods-grow-up.

11. StEP Solving the e-waste problem, 2012, [online] Available: http://www.step-initiative.org/.

12. ISTAS12 Technology and Society in Asia IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society, 2012.

Citation: Katina Michael, "Putting Technology into Perspective in Asia", IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, Volume: 32, Issue: 3, Fall 2013, pp. 5 - 6, DOI: 10.1109/MTS.2013.2276662

Social Implications of Technology: "Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo"

Late last year, IEEE SSIT was invited to put together a paper for the centennial edition of the Proceedings of the IEEE for publication in May 2012 [1]. The article, “Social Implications of Technology: Past, Present, and Future,” brought together five members of SSIT with varying backgrounds, and involved two intense months of collaboration and exchange of ideas. I personally felt privileged to be working with Karl D. Stephan, Emily Anesta, Laura Jacobs, and M.G. Michael on this project.

While it is important to go on record as saying that while there was harmony in the final paper delivered to The Proceedings, there was certainly some tug-of-war related to themes and perspectives addressed in the paper. We carefully critiqued each other's writing and some twenty-three drafts later came out with the final product, some thirty pages in length. The paper included 29 telling photographs and about 180 references, many sourced from IEEE T&S Magazine.

Controversy, conflict, disagreement, discord, disharmony makes for a good plot joining together once disparate ideas. Without this cross-disciplinary dialogue and dichotomy there cannot be a holistic analysis of the observable facts. In the the Proceedings paper, we attempted to write a balanced article, at times oscillating between positive and negative social implications of technology, externalities and advances as a result of technology, and the risks versus rewards of technology's trajectory.

IEEE-SSIT is clearly not just about the adverse effects of technical change but indeed concerned with how technology can be harnessed toward optimistic ends. IEEE Technology and Society Magazine especially has a duty to its community of engineers and practitioners to publish at both ends of the spectrum, the successes and failures of technology in terms of social implications.

But more than that, T&S Magazine has a responsibility to capture what is happening, has happened, will happen. Our publication needs to move away from the mentality that says “this paper” or “this author” is for technology or against technology. This is to oversimplify many of the cases that have been published thus far in T&S. In some of the strongest articles I have read, what emerges after my reading is a depiction of a phenomenon that just “is what it is.” What makes good research is usually a good story that can capture the good, the bad, and the ugly.

As editor in chief, I will make it my goal to attract papers of all kinds — on the use and misuse of technology. You simply cannot have one without the other because the human factor is prevalent in design and deployment. I would be doing the Magazine a disservice if suddenly I were to put blinkers on to claim that technique can do no wrong, independent of whose hands it is in. This is simply not the case. If the number of papers about the negative social implications of technology seem to dominate over those on positive social implications, it has only to do with the types of papers the Magazine receives as submissions.

We cannot print articles that demonstrate benefits of technology if they have not been written and submitted for consideration. I urge you to think about writing something we can publish that reflect positive impacts of technology. I am thinking of topics such as: how affective computing can help autistic kids, the use of high frequency data streams to improve outcomes for premature infants, the advantages of using wearable technologies to do remote vocational training and assessment, the benefits to the global community of data visualization techniques for online museums, electronic methods for reducing an individual's carbon emissions footprint, historical articles that show how indigenous communities have attempted to preserve aspects of their culture through technology, using assistive social robots to care for the elderly and the young, and so forth.

As editor, however, I will not ignore articles that demonstrate that technology can be misused. I welcome papers on technology-related addictions and health risks, on consumer resistance to new technologies, on citizen rights to use technologies for counter-surveillance, on the complications of data custodianship and cloud computing, on the increasing pervasiveness of geomatics engineering, and on the rise of cyberbullying and offenses against the person committed online.

What I am most concerned with is that T&S Magazine - at least in mindspace - keep pace with the times. Let us see more papers on how engineering will advance humanity but let us also question whether or not technology will always advance humanity.

In this case, the problem was with the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (WASA), and with two U.S. federal agencies that are supposed to protect the public against hazardous substances and processes: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Much of the problem (which is quite complex) was due to a change in the chemicals used by WASA for protection against bacterial contamination. An important consequence of this was a great increase in the leaching into the water of lead from brass pipes.

WASA and the EPA rejected the analysis by Edwards, despite its being supported by substantial real world data. The CDC issued a report that downgraded the importance to health of lead in drinking water. Both WASA and the EPA withdrew financial backing for Edwards' work, putting him in a difficult position. But he persisted, at one point, paying his student assistants out of his own pocket. Ultimately all three agencies conceded that his position was valid, and steps to alleviate the problem were initiated.

Over the past three decades, somewhat more attention has been paid to ethics in engineering curricula, but no meaningful progress has been made to provide real support for engineers, such as Edwards and DeKort, who take such teaching seriously. While, several decades ago, the IEEE took some steps toward helping ethical engineers, it later backed out of this area completely. The IEEE Ethics and Member Conduct Committee and its members are now not allowed to give advice to engineers on ethical matters.

References

1. K. D. Stephan, K. Michael, M. G. Michael, L. Jacob, E. Anesta, "Social implications of technology: Past present and future", Proc. IEEE, vol. 100, no. 13, pp. 1752-1781, 2012.

Citation: Katina Michael, Social Implications of Technology: "Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo", IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, Volume: 31, Issue: 3, Fall 2012, pp. 4 - 5, Date of Publication: 26 September 2012, DOI: 10.1109/MTS.2012.221139