Alternative Futures

Alternative Futures 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.

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. This series of conversations, online and in person, will 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.