Reflections on FutureFest

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Last weekend I attended an event run by Nesta called FutureFest. I’ll give a quick rundown of what the event was about, my reflections on it (both how it was run and the questions that emerged from it), and the emerging technologies that could shape our future in a big way.

Outline

As the name suggests, the whole event was based around futurism and looked to answer a few key questions:

Where are we headed?

What future do we want to create?

How do we create it?

In terms of format, it was part talk-fest, part interactive. The main room was used almost exclusively for quick fire (20 minute) talks, and then we had panel/audience debates in another room. Downstairs was used for the ‘Imaginarium’, which was a mix of funky technology and organisations engaging you about the future-related work they’re doing.

 

Reflections

The conference was pretty slick and immersive, helped by a great venue; Shoreditch Town Hall. Although for me it was over-curated. I don’t go to conferences so much to be talked at, but rather to talk with people, and there wasn’t much space or time provided for spontaneous interaction with other attendees, which I always find to be the richest part of events. The speakers were a real mix, some were engaging and focused, others seemed to forget what they were supposed to talk about and meandered aimlessly.

That said, I certainly found the event as a whole very thought-provoking. The main insights for me were:

Our default view is of technology is that it is progress, but each tech should be put under the microscope and analysed for whether it is making the world better (i.e. more socially just/environmentally sustainable), not just whether it can be sold. Whilst science and business have many strengths, they pay no heed to ethics and such decisions should not be left to the market. One of my concerns is that our technology is fast beginning to outstrip our maturity as a species to know what best to do with it.

It’s very difficult for us to make wise judgements about the costs/benefits of new technology. The main context from which we make decisions is to ask ‘what is best for us as an individual tomorrow?’ What we need to ask is ‘what is best for society in ten years?’ i.e. using long-term, big picture thinking to make decisions.

Optimism bias was definitely on show, and what I mean by this is that we judge good things unusually likely to happen to us, negative things unusually unlikely – it’s an important little trick our minds play on us to inspire us to get up in the morning and keep going. However, I was glad to see some speakers acknowledge that we face some sizable challenges ahead, and technology alone is not the answer to all of them – in fact new technology also causes new problems, especially if we continue to neglect the unintended and inevitable negative consequences of it. Every technology has downsides too; perhaps our greatest technological breakthrough of the last few centuries – the use of fossil fuels for energy – has also provided us with perhaps the biggest problem of the 21st century; climate change.

I felt there were a lot of speakers/panelists too concerned with trying to look like experts, and trying to take black and white stances on some messy, complex issues in which the truth lies somewhere in between two conflicting viewpoints. They were busy looking clever rather than trying to find a better answer.

There was a great deal of agreement that civilization’s current macro-institutions (economics especially, but also politics, business, education etc) are growing increasingly outdated and that new ones will spring up sooner or later that are more capable of handling the challenges we face. Unfortunately, the questions of what these should look like and what methods we use to create them were left largely unasked.

Another take home was just how spectacularly wrong a lot of futurists get things when they try to predict the future! Apparently futurists have been predicting fewer working hours for decades and decades, and yet it is going the opposite way. This is an example though of where technology is not the answer – it is economics that represents the main barrier to shorter working hours rather than technology; the technology is already there for us to be working very short weeks.

And one of my favourite lines from the conference; ‘If we want better answers, we need to ask better questions.’

 

Radical future trends

A few things to look out for (some of which aren’t so far away at all)…

Sir Martin Rees suggested that with developments in genetics, within the next couple of centuries we will be in charge of evolution – not natural selection any longer.

A man in Austria recently had voluntary amputation in order to have a robotic hand installed. The world in which we choose to replace parts of ourselves with robotics is perhaps not so far away. One of the speakers was Bertolt Meyer, who himself has a robotic hand, and he speculated that he could even see this becoming a sign of status.

In China they are using gene-mapping to see what people’s talents are and how they should be raised to cultivate this. This immediately got me thinking about Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World

Soon we’ll be at a stage where 3D printers can print all the components necessary to make 3D printers!

 

And a few interesting technologies on show

Cancer Research UK found that, using their program, members of the public are 90-95% accurate in spotting cancer cells and will soon be opensourcing this out to the crowd to assist with finding cures for cancer.

The BBC have been working on surround visual TV, with images projected on the walls all around you whilst watching the program.

Potentially coming soon on Radio 5 Live (also from the BBC R&D department) listeners will be able to adjust the balance of volume between commentators and crowd, and choose which part of the crowd in the stadium they want to listen to.

BERG Cloud’s Little Printer, which is the smallest printer I’ve ever seen…

All in all, I’m really pleased I went – I learned a lot and made some great connections there. So a big thanks to Nesta for putting an event asking some very important questions.

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Reflections on a future free of aging

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On Saturday I attended an insightful talk by Russian scientist and aging expert Alex Zhavoronkov at Birkbeck College. The talk was titled ‘Biomedical Discoveries and the Ageless Generation’.

 

Alex talked us through the scientific breakthroughs taking place in aging research at the moment, drawing attention to successful experiments that have significantly extended the life spans of mice and house flies. He explained that our understanding of the factors that cause aging has come a long way, and that this is one of the main reasons he is so confident that the current generation of 20-40 somethings will go on to live healthy lives until 150 years old.

 

Yes, you did that right – 150. A bold prediction, but one that Alex confidently believes will come true and I’d pay attention too – he’s the expert and is really at the leading edge of this research at the moment. I won’t go in to much detail about the scientific context, but you can find out more by reading the book that Alex has recently released.

 

What I would like to do is share a few reflections I had following the talk on a possible future in which our lives are greatly extended. I’m always a bit sceptical of technological breakthroughs and all the potential they promise to transform our lives for the better. Technology has long promised this ‘life of abundance’ in which we have lots of time for leisure and family, and we are free of suffering. If anything though, I see our lives getting more stressful – indeed in Andrew Simms’ book Cancel the Apocalypse he highlights the fact that in the UK our working weeks have actually grown since the 1980s, despite all the technological development supposedly making our lives easier. The techno-optimist perspective seemed to be the dominant one though amongst the attendees. I feel that now it is more our cultural mindset and economic system that stand in the way of this easier life, rather than the technology itself. I’m not sure we’ve made much progress in these areas over the past few decades. So like any technological development, I believe prolonged lives will solve some problems, and create others.

 

First reflection: Any discussion of extending quantity of life should include a discussion of quality of life. We live in a time where ‘more is better’ is a dominant philosophy. What will we do with all these extra years? What new possibilities will they enable in our lives? A couple of friends I spoke with afterwards turned their noses up at the prospect of living an extra fifty years just to spend it all working – and this is what our economy would demand.

 

Second reflection: As someone who is rather concerned about our current overshoot of environmental resources and the consequences this will have for the future, the idea of us living longer brings some obvious worries. Of course technology could come to our rescue, but at the moment we are using up 1.4 Earths to sustain ourselves and so far technology seems to be enabling this to worsen. Ultimately, the effects of overshoot will be felt in poorer countries first, who would not be the beneficiaries of any breakthroughs in aging science. The rich will benefit, and by living longer put more demand on resources, with the impacts of this felt first in poorer countries. My concern therefore is that breakthroughs in aging science will likely increase global inequality, which is not something I am a great fan of.

 

I have to say though, I love the idea of having an extra 70 healthy years. What would you do with that time?