Alternative Futures

We—modern post-industrial societies—are in the early stages of a radical transformation of how our economies and societies work, based on an onslaught of disruptive technologies that are only beginning to emerge. These range from self learning, self replicating “conscious” artificial intelligence that can execute an ever- widening range of cognitive tasks to profound changes in our understanding of—and capacity to manipulate—life itself to nanotechnologies that could be the key to sustainable energy systems that fundamentally alter the trajectory of climate change. The questions are endless. But before we can seriously discuss any of them, we need to peak behind the screen that separates most of us from the labs where the new knowledge that will change our lives is being created. The Tällberg Foundation exploration started in the Life Sciences Labs at MIT on April 12-13, 2017.

Disruptive technologies and society

One of the things we at the Tallberg Foundation have been thinking about are the possible impacts of accelerating technological change on various aspects of society.  We are convinced that a whole range of disruptive technologies could soon change the nature of work, of war, of politics, of social relationships—the list goes on. 

We are organizing a series of one day meetings at various labs and companies around the world, with a view to understanding some of the disruptive technologies—in AI, life sciences, robotics, nanotech, etc—that seem likely to change the world as we know it.   We want to provoke a conversation between scientists and technologists on the one hand, and the rest of us on the other hand, with the goal of at least figuring out the questions we ought to be asking, including the ethical questions.  That is a simple, but ambitious agenda; it’s easier to know where (how) such a conversation might start than where it will end.

The idea is to gather a small groups on 4 or 5 places during the next 24 months for a day’s conversations with scientists and technologists.  The group will mostly change each time, but then—hopefully—we will bring everyone together for a couple day workshop to share whatever we have learned and, more importantly, to distill where future inquiries should head. 

The first stop on this tour was at MIT in Cambridge, where Juan EnriquezCo-Founder and Managing Director of Excel Medical Ventures, hosted a day at various labs.  


BACKGROUND

Alternative Futures: a Tällberg Foundation Inquiry

“For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk and we learned to listen. Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn’t have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.” Stephen Hawking

We—modern post-industrial societies—are in the early stages of a radical transformation of how our economies and societies work, based on an onslaught of disruptive technologies that are only beginning to emerge. These range from self learning, self replicating “conscious” artificial intelligence that can execute an ever- widening range of cognitive tasks to profound changes in our understanding of—and capacity to manipulate—life itself to nanotechnologies that could be the key to sustainable energy systems that fundamentally alter the trajectory of climate change.

In the past, technological progress freed workers from heavy labor and then from repetitive, routine tasks, creating new industries (and new jobs) based on higher productivity and higher knowledge. The resulting “creative destruction” was at the heart of modern capitalism: lost jobs, ruined companies, and vanishing industries replaced by more productive, dynamic and richer successors. At the same time, dramatic advances in medicine increased life expectancy, while the Green Revolution assured that the rapidly expanding global population did not produce a Malthusian catastrophe. More recently, new information technologies underpinned an intensified period of globalization that reduced global inequality (even if it contributed to rising inequality in many advanced countries) and offered the promise of a new era of shared global growth.

In short, technology drove productivity drove prosperity in a virtuous circle that produced an unprecedented explosion of human development from the mid 20th century. Will the coming onslaught of disruptive technologies reinforce or destroy that process?

We are seeing the first, partial, not so positive answers to that question. Smart machines are beginning to replace less smart people at a pace that seems likely to accelerate; work that is well underway in labs will redesign humanity, not just extending life but changing it; emerging autonomous weapons systems suggest that, on the battlefields of the (not so distant) future, the fastest machines—meaning the ones with the least human input—are likely to have a decisive advantage; some futurists are already arguing that widespread dissatisfaction with representative democracy could be solved by a more efficient and effective “direct technocracy,” where experts govern with feedback from a constantly pinged electorate.

As Dorothy said in the Wizard of Oz, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” Indeed, it is a growing possibility that rapidly emerging new technology could outstrip our capacity to govern it and our societies’ ability to absorb it, with unpredictable consequences.

Juan Enriquez of Synthetic Genomics has a suggestion: “As we evolve ourselves, we need more debate and coeducation between non-scientists and scientists. This need not be a dreary or nerdy debate, but it’s a debate that we need to have.”

In that spirit, the Tällberg Foundation is launching not a debate, but an open ended conversation. As non-scientists, we want to engage with scientists and technologists who are working at the cutting edge of genomics, artificial intelligence, robotics and nanotechnology to think together about the possible consequences and impacts of emerging disruptive technologies on society.

In a world of accelerating change, we want to ask, “How in the world can we live together.” What is the nature of work in a world where technology dramatically changes the demand for labor? What are the geopolitical consequences of the democratization of mass impact weapons and autonomous weapons systems? What are the implications of dramatic increases in life expectancy? How do we cope with the capacity to direct our own evolution as a species?

The questions are endless. But before we can seriously discuss any of them, we need to peak behind the screen that separates most of us from the labs where the new knowledge that will change our lives is being created.

The format for this conversation will be a series of one-day workshops to be held at leading scientific campuses over the next two years that will focus on introducing participants to various emerging technologies, and kick starting a conversation about the social, political and economic implications. The idea is to schedule 4 or 5 workshops to be followed by a multi-day conference intended to pull together the threads or the various conversations. In between these workshops, we will host a series of conversations, online and in person, to define questions and frame conversations, if not answers.

Like the science we are trying to understand, this initiative will evolve according to its own logic. We know where we will start—in the Life Sciences Labs at MIT—but other stops along the way are yet to be defined.


PROGRAM OUTLINE

Wednesday, April 12
Welcome Dinner & Conversations

We start the conversation during dinner around the issues that each of you think we need to consider, not just in Cambridge, but in the larger conversation that we aim to provoke.

Thursday, April 13th
The Boston Cambridge Tech World

Morning
We begin the morning touring what arguably is the most interesting street corner on the planet today: Kendall Square. The six buildings seem on course to generate 1-2% of
the world’s GDP in the not too distant future. We expect to start at one of the most innovative cancer centers in the world, The Koch Institute. Part of the reason the place is so innovative is that it is within a school that has no medical school or hospital. So the center is populated by an unusual (weird?) combination of five different species of engineers as well as various types of biologists.

Then we will walk next door for a tour of the Stata Center that houses robotics, artificial intelligence, and linguistics (among other peculiar things).

Crossing the street we will see MITs largest single building, the neuroscience building where all the folks who study the brain (radiologists, neurosurgeons, psychiatrists, etc., come together). We will pass by the Whitehead Institute, which is one of the most highly cited life science centers in the world; pass by the Broad Institute, one of the largest Genome factories in the world; and end up at the Media Lab for a quick tour of cutting-edge robotics and optics.

Afternoon

Lunch will be sandwiches at Excel Venture Management—Juan’s home away from home and a place that is responsible for some of that 1-2% of GDP making the transition from concept to market—where we will discuss the entrepreneurial ecosystem. In addition, Juan has invited a couple of entrepreneurial techies to give us a peak under the hood. One demo will highlight the cutting edge of virtual reality. Another will show how to turn raw silk into products ranging from refrigeration-free vaccines and bullet proof shirts to mind blowing tattoos.

In the afternoon we will focus on two small subjects: exoplanets and the origins of life. The next five years will likely give us a sense of whether there is life like ours on other planets, and how to know what to look for.

Evening

Debriefing session and closing.