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The (Near) Future of Technology

28 Apr 2017 2:04 PM | Mark Michelson (Administrator)
From Delta Sky Magazine

By Joseph Flaherty, March 2017

In 1967, Herman Kahn, a nuclear physicist and futurist at the Rand Corporation (who also served as inspiration for the character Dr. Strangelove), wrote a book called The Year 2000 in which he made 100 predictions about what the next 33 years would bring. He was surprisingly prescient in predicting mobile phones, real-time banking systems and a pervasive surveillance apparatus. His predictions that humans would hibernate in homes staffed by robots and powered by personal nuclear reactors haven’t held up so well.

Still, 50 years after Kahn made his bold predictions, we asked a group of academics, technologists and entrepreneurs to provide a shorter-term perspective on the most impactful technologies and trends that are likely to influence this year and beyond.

General purpose artificial intelligence that can think and communicate like a human—what computer scientists call “strong AI”—remains a sci-fi fantasy. However, artificial intelligence trained to excel at a narrow focus, or “weak AI,” has turned out to be a versatile technological solution to many vexing problems.

Using an elegant technique called deep learning, weak AI is what Facebook uses to tag people by name in photographs. It’s what allows Google to complete your searches before you even finish typing. Weak AI can develop new ways to beat video games, write sports stories based on a box score, create a creepily accurate copy of your voice and even write lyrics to a rap song. Weak AI has become powerful enough to best humans in the complex game of Go, decades sooner than experts had expected.

This progress has led credible technologists, economists and venture capitalists to believe we could soon have a future in which tax preparers, paralegals, insurance underwriters and others find themselves out of jobs. Estimates from the World Economic Forum suggest that AI-based automation could cause 5 million jobs, mostly white collar, to be lost by 2020. Worries about the availability of desk jobs have replaced fears of a destructive robot uprising.

But not everyone is certain that robots will rob humans of meaningful work. “Humans want to make things and to buy things. So I’m confident we won’t run out of work anytime soon, even as automation increases in some professions,” says Thomas Rid, a professor of security studies at King’s College in London and author of the book Rise of the Machines: A Cybernetic History. “And let’s not forget how difficult it is to automate jobs that require a high degree of adaptation and improvisation: Anybody who thinks robots should long have taken over from plumbers, dentists or construction workers probably has a fanciful notion of robotics and AI.”

Rid suggests that predictions should be based on real technologies, not science fiction. “Whenever we approach the machine-as-human—and the term AI does that, pretending that machines could become like us, with artificial brains—we tend to fool ourselves. Let’s not approach AI by looking at science fiction, but by looking at existing technology.”   

By that measure, AI is an unqualified boon. AI gives artists new tools to create, provides real-time translation to facilitate cross-cultural communication, has made autonomous cars a reality and has given some health care providers the ability to provide more targeted cancer treatment.

But while AI makes some people wary, the most pressing cybernetic threat we face may be the tiny black box sitting under our TVs. Last October, hundreds of thousands of DVRs, webcams and other seemingly harmless internet-connected doohickeys launched a coordinated cyberattack that temporarily took down websites such as Twitter and Spotify. It was resolved quickly, but it did highlight weaknesses in our online infrastructure.

“Like an early version of our highway system, the internet was not architected to support the massive volume of content and data that it now supports,” says Kyle York, chief strategy officer at Dyn, a startup that provides critical back-end infrastructure to companies such as Twitter and National Geographic. “The internet is also more volatile and prone to disruption than most people would think.”

The Internet of Things, the umbrella term for the ecosystem of smart light bulbs, smoke alarms, door locks—most of which house small, though powerful, computers—can wreak havoc. These low-priced gadgets are rarely seen as threats and become ripe for hacking. A computer programmer recently demonstrated that a web camera was infected by a computer virus just 98 seconds after being plugged in. To give a sense of scale, there are 6.8 billion cellphone subscriptions across the globe, and experts forecast there will be 20 billion connected devices in people’s homes by 2020, increasing the risk for future attacks.

“Network security will continue to evolve as bad actors respond to the solutions that industry experts develop to patch vulnerabilities. It’s a wild game of cat and mouse,” York says. “Increased vigilance and the realization that advanced mitigation tools and techniques need to be employed to provide greater threat detection and security will help. Predictive technologies will become a major defense as companies aim to move from disaster recovery to more of a disaster avoidance posture.”

Not being able to access Twitter is a pain, but the scarier “cybersecurity” threats are personal. Imagine a scammer who disables the smart lock on your front door until you pay a $5 ransom via Bitcoin. Or a hacker who threatens to disable your smoke alarm unless you give him access to your Facebook account. There may come a time when you’ll need to buy antivirus software for your vacuum cleaner.

Tech has had a dark side since the days of dial-up, but until recently, it was possible to filter the good from the bad, even if it meant disconnecting. In 2017, tech’s dark side threatens to spill out into the real world, and the way we think about technology is going to have to change—quickly.

Amazon is Walmart on steroids, and Netflix is the logical extension of the corner video store, but the basic act of shopping isn’t that different from what existed before the internet—it’s just faster and better. But advances in artificial intelligence and cybersecurity promise to reshape our world in ways that are harder to predict. And whether you’re a cybernetic chicken little or an entrepreneur thrilled by emerging technology, one of the preeminent tech historians of our day says it’s mostly guesswork in the end: “History has a clear lesson: Most of today’s predictions are going to be wrong,” says Thomas Rid. “Futurists in the past got far more predictions wrong than they got right.”

In the words of Terminator’s John Connor, “There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.” Regardless, buckle up, because it’s going to be an exciting ride. 

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