Beware Incredible Technology-Enabled Futures

Throughout my life, the future has been envisioned and marketed by many as a technology-enabled utopia. As a child growing up in the greater Los Angeles area, my siblings and I were treated to an annual pilgrimage to Disneyland. Originally created for the 1964-65 World’s Fair, Disneyland’s “Carousel of Progress” presented Walt Disney’s awe-inspiring vision of a future enabled through new technologies.

Although I preferred the speedy thrill of a ride on the bobsleds, I found the Carousel of Progress fascinating. It, and one of my favorite cartoons, the Jetsons, inspired me to believe that technological advances might create a utopia in my lifetime.

Many of the technologies featured in these imaginative futures now exist, but our world is hardly a utopia. In fact, new technologies have created many new nightmares.

As the TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) Conference has grown from a single annual event in Monterey, California to a worldwide franchise of TEDx conferences, the ideas of a few well-curated speakers have grown into a huge and ever-expanding collection of talks ranging from brilliant to downright nonsense. While thoughtful ideas are still presented in some TED talks, the speakers are no longer vetted with care.

The point of this article is not to critique TED in general, but to expose the absurdities of a new TED talk titled “Three Steps to Surviving the Robot Revolution,” by Charles Radclyffe.


[Radclyffe, on the left, is pictured with the actor Brent Spiner, who played the robot named Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation]

I don’t browse TED talks, so I only become aware of them when someone brings them to my attention. In this case, I received an email from Charles Radclyffe himself, which opened with the sentence, “I’m emailing you with my TEDx talk details as we’ve previously exchanged emails.” As far as I know, Radclyffe and I have never previously exchanged emails. Nevertheless, I was grateful to hear from him because the TED talk that I found caused me great concern.

In his talk, Radclyffe describes how robotics, automation, and artificial intelligence will together usher in a marvelous world if humans are willing to relinquish their jobs. He acknowledges how much people value employment and feel threatened by the “robot revolution,” but argues that, if we were no longer shackled to jobs, we could spend our time in activities that were vastly more meaningful, useful, and fulfilling.

He makes a distinction between work (“anything that you do with intention”) versus a job (“work that you do with the intention of being paid”), and argues that the former is intrinsically valuable but the latter is not. This distinction, however, does not actually eliminate the value of employment, in part because most of us actually do need to earn a living. Radclyffe resolves this dilemma by promoting an incredibly naïve vision of the future. He argues that, if we would only step aside and let machines perform all of the labor that does not absolutely require “human touch” (a term that he doesn’t clarify but suggests is a rather short list), the products and services produced by machines would be free. That’s right—free! Here’s a direct quote:

If you eliminated human labour from the equation of any particular product or service, it would become free. In the past, we were faced with scarcity, but imagine an abundance economy. What little cost that remains would be eliminated by the market and by competition if we could make those industries that were essential for our survival ones with a minimum of human labour…If we encourage and not resist the pace of change, particularly in essential industries, the very goods and services that we all need to survive could be provided for free.

When I heard these words, my jaw hit the floor. “Are you nuts?,” I thought. Radclyffe’s talk is marketing, not a realistic vision of the future. To buy into this, you must accept two premises: 1) products and services can be produced by machines without cost,  and 2) the providers of these products and services will provide them for free. Neither premise is believable. Even if technologies eliminated all costs, which is not the case, the corporations that owned them would never give them away for free.

Radclyffe goes on to argue that, not only could we live more fulfilling lives if the need for human labor were eliminated, but the products and services created by machines, unlike our products and services today, would function ideally. He illustrates this claim with the example of food production. If humans ceased to be involved in food production, we could easily feed the world aplenty using a system of agriculture that was virtually flawless. Given our experience with agribusiness today, can you imagine the huge corporate owners of robotically automated food production, untethered from human labor, using sustainable practices that protected the environment to produce food that provided optimal nutrition for humans? I cannot.

I’ve spent the last 35 years helping people derive value from data using information technologies. I’m responsible for several technological innovations in the field of data visualization. As an experienced technologist who has been doing this for a while, my expectations of technologies are realistic, not pie in the sky visions of bliss. I have a passionate love/hate relationship with technologies. I love them when they’re needed and work well, but I hate them when they’re used to do what we should do ourselves or when they work poorly. Many technologies now exist that we would be better off without and many technologies, especially information technologies, work abysmally. For some strange reason we have learned to give information technologies a pass, tolerating poor quality in these devices that we would never tolerate elsewhere.

Technologies, including robotics, automation, and artificial intelligence, will have an important role to play in our future. They will only play that role well, however, if we approach them thoughtfully and hold them to high standards of ethics and performance. If we ever do create a world that borders on utopia, technologies will no doubt assist, but they will not be the cause. This will come to pass primarily because we’ve progressed as human beings. To progress, we need to look inward and work hard to become our best selves. Technologies will not save us. To survive and flourish, we will need to be our own saviors.

Take care,

15 Comments on “Beware Incredible Technology-Enabled Futures”


By Bob Hazelton. December 27th, 2017 at 10:08 pm

The naive premise of Radclyffe’s talk will be more than accounted for via the coming tax on robotic labor.
As more & more people are being replaced by automated production the taxes paid by those workers are being lost by federal, state & local authorities. There have already been calls to tax the “labor” of machines at the same rate as a human worker.

By Tom Mowlam. December 27th, 2017 at 11:31 pm

I have not seen the original TED talk, so my comment is on the comment…

Something we can look at is the current state of automation, and the cost of the produce… Car production lines are highly automated… For example Tesla plan to build their SUV Tesla Model Y (part of their S3XY CAR series) using as close to 100% automation as possible. Much as I like to believe I will be able to pick one up for near free, it’s just not going to happen.

Possibly if raw materials, energy, and information were free, then we might be moving to utopia… But whilst information and energy are becoming cheaper (via internet/open source/open access, and renewable energy growth)… Access to raw materials will be limited until any Tom, Dick, and Harriet can mine the asteroid belt … So long as no company/country has planted their flag on each significant bit of rock before they get there!

By Jim Leemann. December 28th, 2017 at 12:33 am

I am always fascinated by the breathtaking naivete that so-called dataPhilosopher (whatever that is) like Radclyffe spew out about the nirvana they believe the rest of us are striving for or at least should be according to them.

All of these Progressive types, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, etc. profess that there is an endless need for all of us to devote our time and energy to “activities that [are] vastly more meaningful, useful, and fulfilling.”

Just what are all these so-called “activities” Radclyffe is talking about? Who is going to organize all of this “free” labor to tackle these “activities?” Undoubtedly, the government and those in power. What currency will be used to obtain items of necessity to live? How do you get those not working now to become engaged in these so-called “meaningful” activities, especially since they receive what they need to live on for free now?

No doubt, robotics is and will continue to play an increasing role in the labor arena and will displace certain jobs, which is an issue that will need to be addressed. But to suggest that robots will be the entire or close to the entire workforce in anything close to the near future fortunately will never occur in my lifetime, nor do I believe it will happen to the degree Radclyffe believes or wants it to happen in anyone’s lifetime that is currently alive. Possibly, Radclyffe has been watching too many Star Wars movies with Data.

Radclyffe, like most Progressives, believe that all humans are intrinsically alike and all we need to do is believe in their Progressive ideology of power and control over the masses, because “we” know what is best for you and will take care of you.

Fortunately, we are blessed with being created with a brain to think as an individual, which drives people like Radclyffe crazy, because surely none of us are as smart as Radclyffe.

By stephenfew. December 28th, 2017 at 12:57 am

Jim,

Exercise care when using terms such as “progressive.” As many, perhaps most of us understand the term (yes, I consider myself a progressive), it does not suggest that we embrace technological solutionism. It certainly doesn’t imply a belief that “all humans are intrinsically alike.” As I understand and use the term, to be progressive is to embrace diversity.

By Erich Pawlik. December 28th, 2017 at 6:54 am

As you have pointed out, technology will not be our saviour. At least not the technology that is currently being shaped by mainstream research and development. A technological vision is only successful if it can find its place in the current and in an emergent form of social organization. While we are walking into the future, we have to ask a lot of questions – about the nature of future work, about rebalancing stakeholder relationships in enterprises, about the relationship between civil society and the state. Thank you for starting to ask questions with your new blog.

By stephenfew. December 28th, 2017 at 8:46 am

Erich,

To contribute more substantially to this discussion, it would help if you explained yourself more clearly. What do you mean by the statement, “A technological vision is only successful if it can find its place in the current and in an emergent form of social organization”? What do you mean by “rebalancing stakeholder relationships in enterprises” and “the relationship between civil society and the state”?

By Mark Lankers. December 28th, 2017 at 9:09 am

Erich,

“A technological vision is only successful if it can find its place in the current and in an emergent form of social organization” – no, no, and doubly no.

Implementation of technology (which I understand your “vision” concept to be) will be successful if it provides benefit. Successful implementation of technology does not need to find a niche, instead it will carve its own niche and change social organization around it.

The advent of the technology “controlling fire” changed social organization in that humans were now able to access more energy (higher caloric content) in less time, allowing humananity to spend less time hunting and gathering. This particular technology even enabled (and only that, not caused!) evolutionary change in prehistoric humans, in that random mutations that led to larger brains (which need a huge amount of energy, compared to the rest of our bodies) were now able to not die off, as now the required energy was available.

Technology does not adapt to the world. It changes it, for the better or worse.

By Dale Lehman. December 28th, 2017 at 12:34 pm

Of course, this “vision” of abundance, free, and no more human labor is nonsense. But it is the direction we are headed – I don’t think the pace is that important – what matters more is whether or not this is good or desirable. My view of autonomous technologies is that, rather than giving humans the ability to train or teach machines to serve us better, it is really us that are being trained by the machines. Cortana (and her ilk) will work well, provided that we learn how to use them (which really means as long as we become trained to behave as they have been designed to work with us). Gradually we become people whose needs can be answered by machines. I see this as part of the progression that has been happening for a long while, as we become mass consumers that can be served by ever larger enterprises. It is no accident that our economy is becoming more consolidated, wealth is becoming more concentrated, and we are told we have endless choice, as long as it is what we are trained to desire. Science fiction (as usual) has anticipated this – just think of Wall-E and the humans growing fat as they are “served” by robots for all of their well-conditioned needs.

Here is my point. I don’t believe this is an intentional plot, even by those that stand to gain by this evolution (Amazon, Goolge, etc.). Rather I think we have created a system that is increasingly out of our control. A robotic future is merely the final step in that process. As you’ve written about a number of times, it is for humans to control this evolution, not for us to adapt to it. That is what is most disturbing about Radclyffe’s TED talk. Unfortunately, human evolution in terms of social and economic organization is proceeding far more slowly than the technology – hence, I see little reason for optimism. We remain tribal and the “free market” is the best form of organization we have yet developed (I’m not being facetious here – I believe it is the best we have developed, but I find it lacking for the challenges we face).

I’m not sure if I’ve ventured off track here – I’m hoping you (Stephen and readers) can find some threads here that are worth developing further. These are things I have been thinking about for awhile, but without putting together a coherent story.

By Karl Keller. December 28th, 2017 at 4:37 pm

Stephen

Congratulations on you new blog. Since we have worked together, both Barbara and I have read with interest much of your on-line writing, and we talk up “Show Me the Numbers” with our clients — we just did a figures and tables course at a large pharma firm and urged all participants to get your books, as well as those from Tufte and Cleveland.

As for Radclyffe, he’s what I would call a “bubblegum” transhumanist, as opposed to serious and accomplished types, like Ray Kurzweil and Aubrey de Grey. Moreover, his ignorance of economics is breathtaking, as you point out. All human activities require resources, and resources have costs. Resources will never be “free” or costless. The last time that happened was the Garden of Eden, and we know how that story turned out.

What CAN change, and what has changed, is resource availabilty and the price of those resources. As a thought experiment, would you rather be extremely rich in 1817, or a just a person alive in 2017? Of course, you would choose the latter, because a simple infection could kill you prematurely in 1817, plus you wouldn’t have a cell phone(only kidding a bit here). A person from the past who was plopped down in the middle of Whole Foods would think that the produce aisle is a work of magic. But obviously it isn’t magic — it’s resource organization and efficiencies that get you your organic carrots. But keep your credit card handy!

I do think the non-trivial transhumanists are onto something though. Gene manipulation is happening now — how long before we rebuild are telomeres on the cellular level? Quantum computing power is going to happen — though I’m skeptical that computers will pass the Turing test anytime soon. Natural language is a tough tough nut to crack. Robotics is here to stay, and will get better. What the development and improvement of robotics do for the world of work is anybody’s guess. As that great moral philosopher Yogi Berra said, “It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.”

But I predict your future will continue to be bright.

By stephenfew. December 28th, 2017 at 5:01 pm

Karl,

I appreciate the progress that we’ve made in the last two centuries, but I don’t think the answer to your hypothetical question, “Would you rather be extremely rich in 1817 or just a person alive in 2017?” is as obvious as you suggest. Even in parts of the world where people live relatively primitive lives today, they can be quite happy and fulfilled. Despite scientific and technological advances, we humans have advanced little in those aspects of life that are more important in some respects, such as thoughtfulness and compassion.

By stephenfew. December 28th, 2017 at 6:33 pm

Karl,

I want to respond to something else that you said. You classify Radclyffe as a “bubblegum transhumanist.” It isn’t obvious that he is a transhumanist, however. I would classify him more generally as a “technological solutionist.” The vision of transhumanists, such as Kurzweil, is more singular (pun intended). A large chasm separates people such as Kurzweil, who have thought deeply about the techno-topia that they promote and are genuinely committed to it, and folks such as Radclyffe, who are dillitentes by comparison.

Radclyffe and others like him come across as marketing professionals rather than serious thinkers. He makes a living as a consultant by promoting technologies. He resorts to marketing tricks, such as hiring an actor who once played a robot on TV, to support his position. I find it difficult to imagine that he actually believes what he said in his TED talk. In contrast, people such as Kurzweil are true believers. They have integrity, and perhaps truly good intentions, but their positions frighten me. What Kurzweil envisions as utopian I see as dystopian. Whether or not Kurzweil’s vision is viable, which is doubtful, I don’t wish to experience the Singularity. Despite the many flaws of humanity, I believe that a future that preserves our biological nature is preferable to one that transforms it into digital information encased in silicon. I don’t doubt the sincerity of transhumanists, but I fear the future that they seek.

By stephenfew. December 29th, 2017 at 5:51 pm

Charles Radclyffe emailed me today in response to this blog article. He assured me that he very much believes everything in his TED talk. He also clarifited that his formal training is in the law, not in economics or anything related to high-tech, computer science, or data analytics. Apparently, he now runs an analytics consultancy. He’s tied up for the time being with the holidays, but promised to respond to my concerns about his claims in a few days.

By Karl Keller. December 30th, 2017 at 4:39 am

Stephen

1817 or 2017? Perhaps if I was wealthy life wouldn’t be too bad, but poverty was endemic, indoor plumbing was a fantasy for most everyone, and the germ theory of disease was disdained by “mainstream” thinkers. Catch a bad cold, and you probably would have been bled. Oh, then there’s pretty bad or non-existent dentistry. For most, life was nasty, brutish, and short – unless you were a character in a Jane Austen novel. A Mr. Darcy life might do…but even then, count me out.

I think your categorization of Radclyffe is more apt than mine, though the idea that robotic machine-like elements will be integrated into the human body is one hallmark of the transhumanist thinking.

Aubrey de Grey’s arguments on this score are compelling, particularly the idea that aging is not a natural – and therefore unstoppable – phenomena, but can in fact be thought of as damage to biological machinery leading to the all-too familiar aging pathologies. After all, what are kidneys but reverse osmosis machines? the heart, a pump? the lungs, an oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange apparatus? Machines can be repaired – and enhanced. Internal insulin pumps for diabetics are on the horizon—a tiny little robot inside properly regulating glucose levels. What’s not to like?

I highly recommend the talks at the annual SENS conference, where a whole bunch of very accomplished folks from industry and science get together to discuss the latest advances in enhancing lifespan. Moreover, I’ve seen some of these advances up close in our consulting work. The latest biological re-engineering CART-T therapies, for example, are tremendously exciting, and are at the forefront of personalized medicine. They can be thought of as a “repair” to the immune system, consistent with de Grey’s framework.

A lot of folks –and you may be among them – find the vision of the anti-aging folks disturbing, as if somehow unnatural. After all, aren’t we supposed to be born, grown old, and die around three score and ten, plus or minus? I’m sorry, I didn’t get that memo. 200 years ago – say 1817 – 50 was old. We didn’t stop there, and we’re not going to stop at 80 or 90. You and I may be too old to see 3 digit lifespans as the average, but our millennial friends will. And people will be healthy and productive, and like most economic resources, the cost of getting to a viable and energetic 100 plus will go down. See Ray Kurzweil.

Speaking of Kurzweil, you may be right about the singularity’s viability, but the guy is awfully smart, and his predictions have been amazingly accurate. The wags have dismissively called the singularity a “rhapsody for nerds” – clever. You may be fearful, but something like it is coming, and my guess is it with be neither dystopian or utopian. People were freaking out in the early 1990s about genetic manipulation – and some of them were accomplished scientists in the field! Alas, the disasters have not materialized, and the benefits have been phenomenal. So, too, I believe, with AI and Robotics – Radclyffe’s goofy thesis notwithstanding.

By stephenfew. December 30th, 2017 at 5:17 pm

Karl,

Even if we compare the life of an average person 200 years ago to an average person today, it is not obvious that our lives are better today overall. While we enjoy many benefits of technologies today that didn’t exist 200 years ago, we also suffer from many problems today that were not common 200 years ago, which result from new technologies. To name a few, consider our problems today related to stress, obesity, and substance abuse. Presently, our lifespans are now decreasing on average as a direct result of technologies.

To make the comparison personal, I have always suffered from depression and a sense of disconnection from others. Would I have suffered from these problems had I been born 200 years ago? Perhaps not. Trying to compare the quality of our lives today to the past overall is trip down the rabbit hole. The comparison is extremely complex. It is easy, however, to compare specifics. For example, am I grateful that polio has been mostly eradicated. Absolutely. This was a good use of technology. On the other hand, am I grateful for constant electronic communications? Overall, I am not.

My position in not anti-technology. I am, after all, a technologist by profession. Instead, I oppose technologies that, either inherently or due to the way that they are designed and used, cause harm. I believe that we should approach technologies with greater care. We’re not doing that well today.

Your comments about extending lifespan are a red herring in this context. No one has opposed the extension of life as unnatural in this discussion. I certainly haven’t. I will argue, however, that it is more useful to improve the quality of our lives than to merely extend the length of our lives. A longer life, in and of itself, is not necessarily an improvement. It is easy to measure increases or decreases in average lifespan. It is not easy to measure increases or decreases in the overall quality of life. We need to evaluate life’s complexities less simplistically.

Radclyffe’s vision of the future is incredibly naïve. Kurzweil’s vision of the future might be less naïve—the jury is still out and will probably remain so for quite some time—but from my perspective it is definitely dystopian. The fact that work toward his vision is being bankrolled by Google, one of the most powerful companies in the world, should concern us. It concerns me and many others for reasons that are hardly naïve.

By stephenfew. January 11th, 2018 at 6:05 pm

In contrast to Charles Radclyffe’s naive and therefore dangerous TED talk about the future of AI, robotics, and automation, let me recommend another TED talk on the topic that is well reasoned. Sam Harris, whose work I greatly admire, gave a TED talk in 2016 titled “Can we build AI without losing control over it?” If you haven’t seen it, I suggest that you take a look. Fortunately, Harris and a few others are actually thinking about the future of AI in the ways that are necessary to approach it sanely.

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