Book Reviews

Is Technological Progress Unstoppable?

A new book by a Wired senior editor makes the case

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PervasiveScreensEdinburghNapierUniversity
Edinburgh Napier University

The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces that Will Shape Our Future, by Kevin Kelly, Viking, 328 pages, $28.

Arguably the internet came into existence thirty years ago, when the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1986 connected five university-based computer centers. The NSFnet could initially transfer information at the rate of 56 kilobits per second (kbps). My current fiber optic connection at home transfers information at a rate of 1,000 megabits per second (mbps). That is nearly 18,000 times faster than the NSFnet. In 1985, there were 340,000 cell phone subscriptions in the U.S. Last year, cell phone subscriptions exceeded 355 million, a more-than-1,000-fold increase. The smartphone in your pocket has vastly more computing power than the state-of-the-art Cray-2 supercomputer did in 1985. Thirty years ago, the information-soaked world we currently live in and enjoy was for most of us unimaginable.

So what technological wonders will the next 30 years bring? Answering that question is the task that Wired senior maverick and co-founding editor Kevin Kelly sets himself in his new book The Inevitable. In his visionary What Technology Wants, Kelly previously argued that technology is becoming in some sense autonomous, and that autonomous technology, or the "technium" in his terminology, "is now as great a force in our world as nature." But you don't have to buy into Kelly's semi-teleological explanations of the trajectory of the modern technological project to recognize that he does a great deal of deep thinking about how technology evolves, and the ideas in his new work about what's to come are also well worth pondering.

Kelly's key observation is that "there is a bias in the nature of technology that tilts in certain directions and not others." By scrutinizing the nature of technology and how it will evolve, Kelly aims to tell readers something about how the world will "inevitably" look in 2046, a time as distant from us now as 1986 is. His basic answer is that the world in 30 years will be a zillion times smarter, faster, and better.

Kelly urges the reader to adopt a stance of "vigilant acceptance" toward inevitable technological progress, which he believes will include the vast decentralization of commerce, creativity, services, and institutions. "Massive copying is here to stay," he argues. "Massive tracking and total surveillance is here to stay. Ownership is shifting away. Virtual reality is becoming real. We can't stop artificial intelligence and robots from improving, creating new businesses, and taking our current jobs."

Kelly organizes his book around 12 verbs as present participles: For him, the world is becoming, cognifying, flowing, screening, accessing, sharing, filtering, remixing, interacting, tracking, questioning, and beginning.

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Viking

"There is nothing as consequential as a dumb thing made smarter," declares Kelly in his chapter on cognifying. In 30 years, he thinks even the most prosaic products and services will, like the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz, have a brain. He describes how the three trends—cheap parallel computation, big data, and better algorithms—are already enabling artificial intelligence to pervade our world. Deep learning in which neural networks are trained on vast quantities of data is creating A.I.s that can now recognize faces, categorize photographs, make personalized media recommendations, and simultaneously translate languages.

Kelly also grapples with the prospect of artificially intelligent robots stealing human jobs. Intelligent machines will inevitably take over tasks that humans can do but robots can do even better; jobs that humans can't do but robots can; jobs we didn't know we wanted done; and even jobs that we think only humans can do right now. Nevertheless, Kelly points out that at every stage of industrialization, the demand for human input has only increased, and he doesn't think that's going to change.

Thirty years ago, no one would have imagined that people would be employed as social media managers, mobile app developers, big data architects, cloud services specialists, wind turbine technicians, computational genomics analysts, information security analysts, drone pilots, bioinformatics practitioners, and so on. We've also seen a proliferation of service-intensive jobs such as Zumba/yoga/Pilates instructors, elder-care services coordinators, and user-experience designers. Kelly notes that we're similarly unable to imagine the career possibilities that pervasive digital technologies will afford people 30 years from now. Ultimately, Kelly argues, "Let the robots take our jobs, and let them help us dream up new work that matters."

In three decades, screens will be everywhere, allowing people to access the contents of all libraries wherever they happen to be. People in the 2040s will experience ubiquitous computing as a constant conversation in which any information can be obtained instantly and for free. Kelly envisions a cloud-based, radically dematerialized, decentralized, and simultaneous world in which access largely replaces ownership. He sketches a scenario in which a typical denizen lives in a complex that offers round-the-clock services: Each complex has a Node where hourly packages are delivered by robo-drones, robo-vans, and robo-bikes. Residents can subscribe to a clothing service that knows their tastes and sizes and keeps them outfitted with current, fast-changing fashions. If someone wants his clothes cleaned or replaced, he simply places them in a box and his orders are fulfilled, generally within two hours. They can also subscribe to food services that deliver everything from fresh produce from local farmers to hot ready-to-eat meals right to their doors. When residents are away, the complex rents their apartments out to lodgers. People in 2046 do not own any music, movies, games, books, art, or virtual realities—all of that is instantly available through the Universal Stuff service. Transport generally appears within 30 seconds of being summoned, because the service can deduce residents' plans from their texts, calendar, and calls.

Various filters will manage the cornucopia of the future, supplying highly personalized products and services to consumers. In a sense, these filters will help us understand ourselves better.

The truly scarce commodity in the future will be human attention. Accelerated technology will make material goods ever cheaper, so most human effort will be directed toward creating and enjoying fabulous experiences like fine dining, virtual reality dramas, extravagant parties, adventure travel, intense sports competitions, and so forth.

Since everything will be infused with digital bits, it will be possible to remix media in infinite ways according to people's preferences. Today's Iron Editor Anime Music Video (AMV) contests—in which competitors are given a set of anime clips and must combine them into an AMV that "doesn't suck" within two hours—provide a glimpse of the much more radical remixing that will someday be universal.

Tracking too will be omnipresent in 2046. We're already seeing hints of it with the quantified-self movement in which people use all sorts of technologies to monitor their exercise routines, blood pressure, glucose levels, body temperature, and more. Kelly describes his use of a one-inch square Narrative clip camera that automatically captures photos and video as he goes through his day and uses Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to store the images in the cloud. This is only the beginning of a culture of "lifelogging," in which most people will maintain a near-continuous audio and video record of their activities. Artificial intelligence will enable them to search that record for significant moments or help them to remember what occurred.

Of course, if all this information is stored in the cloud, governments will want to get hold of it. Kelly acknowledges this problem, but suggests that "coveillance"—that is, mutual surveillance—can solve the problem by making it easier to watch the watchers, thus keeping them at bay. I have my doubts that that will work even in the relatively liberal United States; authoritarian regimes will only too happily turn cheap ubiquitous tracking into an oppressive panopticon. I don't have a solution, and clearly neither does Kelly. This hard problem is worthy of a lot of attention by digital technologists.

One more quibble with the book: Kelly neglects several technological forces that are sure to shape our future. Most noteworthy among them are the impending biotechnological advances that will dramatically increase healthy longevity and supply the world with food and fiber while freeing up more land for wild nature. He also gives no consideration to how the vast supplies of energy needed to keep all those zillions of bits flowing through the global internet will be generated.

Kelly does not pretend to supply a precise blueprint for how technological progress will unfold, but in The Inevitable he makes a pretty good stab at identifying some of the big digital trends to which we should all be paying attention. "The coolest stuff of all has not been invented yet," he declares. "It is the best time ever in human history to begin." He's entirely right.

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  1. For him, the world is becoming, cognifying, flowing, screening, accessing, sharing, filtering, remixing, interacting, tracking, questioning, and beginning.

    But enough about Deepak Chopra.

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  2. Kilobits and megabits per second, Ron. If you’re going to write about tech…

    1. F: Ah damn! Will fix. Thanks for catching this error. Enjoy the 4th!

      1. Is that an order? That sounds like an order. What if I refuse to enjoy the 4th? Am I gonna get a visit from the libertarian goon squad? They’ll be all like “Hey! Make us hurt you! We can’t hurt you unless you make us!” And I’ll be all like “Get off my lawn you crazy libertarians!”

  3. Street Fighter V to Be Televised Live on ESPN2 from Evo 2016

    On Sunday, July 17, ESPN2 is set to televise Evo’s Street Fighter V World Championship live from the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. Coverage for the event will begin at 7 PM PDT (10 PM EDT).

    Progress!

    1. It will probably be better than their attempt to televise Call of Duty or some such thing last month. It was vertigo inducing, and you couldn’t tell what the fuck was going on or have any real sense of what strategies were being employed. The only way to tell who was winning was a little scoreboard they projected in the corner.

      1. It was Counterstrike, which is baffling considering how dated that game is. I watched it for a while and wasn’t overly impressed.

  4. “”””So what technological wonders will the next 30 years bring? “”

    Automated Alt-Tex?

    1. Robo-anuses?

      1. Those already exist.

    2. Man-portable woodchipper launchers?

  5. All of the cool new technology will only be possible if actual humans don’t get in the way.

    1. Skynet agrees!

  6. In an increasingly risk-averse world that’s overly regulated and has less money to invest in innovation (because of state theft), yes it can & will certainly grind to a halt.

  7. The Inevitable Trends of Tech Progress: A review of Kevin Kelly’s new book
    What will the world be like in 2046?

    Do not worry fellow Amerikans.
    The State will decide for you what will be beneficial to you and what will not be.
    The State will determine for you what you will be able to use and not use.
    The State will make the decisions what tech will be allowed for the unwashed masses.
    It is only a matter of time.
    Doesn’t that make you proud to be an Amerikan?

  8. Telsa helped a guy commit suicide this week. Got to break a few eggs . . . .

    1. Given all the recent posts about automated vehicles and the government getting in the way, I figured Ron would jump at the chance to talk about the first fatality in a vehicle operating in auto mode.

      1. I’m not a fan of driverless cars BUT – how many test pilots died to make modern commercial aviation possible?

        1. Well, test pilots get paid for taking risks. The unhappy customer was not only not paid but actually paid for the privilege of unwittingly risking his life.

    2. No smart car can hope to match superior human derp.

  9. But you don’t have to buy into Kelly’s semi-teleological explanations of the trajectory of the modern technological project

    No shit. To me it sounded like Kelly really believes technological advancement is not the series of improvements resulting from people’s PURPOSEFUL actions but something that happens by itself and inevitably.

    But a lot of people talk or think like that, Ron. It has been forever that scientists and futurists were calling the turning of the corner for fusion… for decades. The same with electric cars, renewable energy sources and the like, never minding that it is people and their choices the drivers of such advances.

  10. When residents are away, the complex rents their apartments out to lodgers.

    Huh?

    1. It’s not your stuff if you ain’t using it.

      1. Hey Bernie! What’s last place feel like?

  11. Transport generally appears within 30 seconds of being summoned, because the service can deduce residents’ plans from their texts, calendar, and calls.

  12. Nothing is inevitable. While unlikely, a breakdown is social order for only one generation would seriously set back technological progress. People tend to think these days that human knowledge is preserved on the Internet. However, the overwheing richness of human technological prowess is still stored in human minds, which is why people still hire based on experience. A breakdown in social order from say, a federal government bankruptcy could very well lead to a great deal of such knowledge being lost as people would turn their attention to satisfying subsistence needs. As I said, unlikely, but possible.

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    1. This right here, this is your future. Imagine a world overpopulated by literal spambots. You couldn’t walk 10 feet without a bot jumping you and screaming in your ear. It’s like even the dirty hobos will be out of jobs.

  14. Also, the structure of production requires constant inputs and maintenance. Think of the infrastructure required to make a computer chip. If social unrest causes a fab plant to shut down for five years, getting it operational again would be no trivial task. Ditto for the transport and delivery infrastructure.

  15. CMW: Do you anticipate a breakdown in social order during the first term of the Trump presidency? Or will that more likely occur in the 2nd term?

    1. Ron, we have evidence that the social order may be strengthened by a Trump presidency. For the first time in 20 years, I’m getting noises from the left that the Constitution may become fashionable again.

  16. Why do articles/thoughts like this even exist, given our absolutely atrocious record at predictedicting anything? The future is going to be queerer than we can suppose.

    1. Because someone is willing to pay an author enough to create a book that they can charge $28/copy for.

  17. Tech ological development is pretty obviously (I think) exponential, so the more advanced we get the further police fall behind. I hope were at a place the govt won’t be able to catch up but ill be more ckmfortable when we have 3d printers that can print better 3d printers

  18. Tech ological development is pretty obviously (I think) exponential, so the more advanced we get the further police fall behind. I hope were at a place the govt won’t be able to catch up but ill be more ckmfortable when we have 3d printers that can print better 3d printers

  19. Tech ological development is pretty obviously (I think) exponential, so the more advanced we get the further police fall behind. I hope were at a place the govt won’t be able to catch up but ill be more ckmfortable when we have 3d printers that can print better 3d printers

    1. We have 3D posting already.

      1. Yes, but we still get three 2D comments…

  20. These books about how the future will look are often wrong, not because technology doesn’t advance as fast as they say it will, but advances differently than expected.

    There usually are revolutions in technology, but they almost always appear where we didn’t expect them. What these books often do is look at current trends and then tries to imagine them all bigger, faster, longer and uncut.

    Plus there are all the social complications and general intransigence which create gaps between what’s possible and what’s actually available.

    It’s possible we could all have flying cars, but there’s no regulatory body on the planet that would allow such a thing.

    And it’s not just government impediments, sometimes it’s intra-party agreements (or lack thereof) between private groups which slow things down or makes that which is possible to be available, unavailable.

    There’s no technological reason why I can’t listen to Pandora in China, but I can’t– at least not without cobbled-together workarounds.

    None of this is knocking the thesis of the book, but over the course of the last 30 years, I can think of a handful of major things that really did revolutionize civilization that no one saw coming.

  21. “People in the 2040s will experience ubiquitous computing as a constant conversation in which any information can be obtained instantly and for free. Kelly envisions a cloud-based, radically dematerialized, decentralized, and simultaneous world in which access largely replaces ownership.”

    Really? All data is free? There will still be a strong desire to monetize some useful data.

  22. “Accelerated technology will make material goods ever cheaper, so most human effort will be directed toward creating and enjoying fabulous experiences like fine dining, virtual reality dramas, extravagant parties, adventure travel, intense sports competitions, and so forth.”

    So it’s mostly a service economy because goods are so cheap? Maybe. But it sounds suspiciously like a fantasy Star Trek world where goods just kind of appear.

  23. The truck driver, Frank Baressi, 62, told the Associated Press that the Tesla driver Joshua Brown, 40, was “playing Harry Potter on the TV screen” during the collision and was driving so fast that “he went so fast through my trailer I didn’t see him”.

    1. Saw him watching Harry Potter.
      Didn’t see him.

      1. After the accident, the driver may have went over to see if the other driver was okay and saw the movie still playing.

        1. But yes, grain of salt.

  24. The way I see it, as automation and computers take over more activities that humans currently perform, the more bored humans will become, so the more gizmos will be created to take their minds off the fact that they actually are doing nothing with their lives. Seriously!

    1. Yes. You will see more entertainment created of all kinds.

      If resources are so cheap and plentiful, cost is not much of an issue, and you might see solutions chosen for problems based more on fun than on economy.

      Imagine the movie pacific rim. We would never build huge fighting robots in reality, but just nuke the monsters. But, if we were super rich and bored, and possibly the entertainment value was high enough, why not use giant fighting robots?

      I think we now have this leaking into politics: the entertainment value of the president is being more heavily valued than ever: Obama is pretty funny. Trump is funny. Hillary has to appear on SNL sketch bits…

  25. Unstoppable? No. Can you say, EMP or solar flares.

    1. Or just plain nuclear war.

  26. Ridley thinks so as well. Says as much in “The Evolution of Everything”

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  28. I predict that I’ll make a comment on a dead thread.

    In 1986, give or take a year or two, I predicted that we’d have goggles you could wear with a screen in them, giving you an immersive 3D experience. My friend that I was talking to said that would fry out your eyes. Sadly, I failed to predict that Al Gore would invent the Internet.

    In three decades, screens will be everywhere, allowing people to access the contents of all libraries wherever they happen to be.

    I completely disagree with this. Screens will be uncommon. We will no longer need them. Instead, computers will be surgically implanted in the human body. The computer will be hooked up to the nervous system. Each person will have a virtual screen that only they can see, for 2D applications, such as spreadsheets. For 3D applications, they’ll see virtual holograms. They’ll tell the computer what to do just by thinking it. The embedded computers will talk to other computers or people using Bluetooth (or, more likely, some successor technology) and/or cell phone technology. This will make us effectively telepathic.

    I do agree that everything we see and do will be autorecorded. This will be done by our implanted computers. Of course, cops will love this. Also, it will have significant privacy implications for places like locker rooms.

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  30. Technology always needs to be progressed and it should be nature friendly. Otherwise we will face many problems in future. iosemus, provenance emulator.

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