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Platypus Innovation Blog

22 July 2019

Fast Company innovation event says: Slow down!

"The real danger is not that computers will begin to think like men, but that men will begin to think like computers."
   - Sydney J Harris

Last week was Fast Company's inaugural European Innovation Festival -- launching an old world version of it's annual New York event. The theme was super-human technology: Innovation from technologies like AI and the increasingly blurry line between the real and digital worlds.

40,000 people in the US already have computer chips in their head.

Yuval Harari predicts some changes. Photo by Fast Company
If there was one consistent message from the dozen talks and panel sessions, it was a call to slow down the pace of disruption. Not because these technologies are bad, but they are so powerful they will reshape society -- and we need to consider our end goals.

Keynote speaker Yuval Harari gave a great talk, where he confidently predicts the end of Homo Sapiens as we know it, as AI, gene editing, and neural implant technologies come of age.[1] He is perhaps the only person who could describe bionic re-engineering of human bodies as a "conservative approach"! On the grounds that it would be a smaller change than a shift to computer-based life.

He was not making Terminator-style doomsday predictions: Harari sees the advances of technology as morally open. Evolution is a process, and current-day Homo Sapiens is not the end of it. Nor would the end of Homo Sapiens mean the end of humanity.

The worry is that AI and bio-hacking driven by raw competition has the potential to "downgrade humanity". E.g. by strengthening discipline and manipulation, at the cost of caring and creativity. We need global cooperation and wisdom to use technology for the benefit of humanity - now more than ever.

The recent development of a de facto arms race in AI between the US and China particularly concerned Harari, as the harsh us-or-them logic of an arms race could pull us towards the worst outcomes.

Putting some real-world flesh on Harari's vision of upgraded humans, neuroscientists Moran Cerf and Riccardo Sabatini gave an excellent session on "hacking the human mind" -- the potential for computers to link directly with the brain.

For many people, their online life is as real as their offline one, and their phone is already part of them. Cerf and Sabatini predict that this integration will start to be physical. The line is increasingly blurred, with for example, augmented reality, the extra digital senses of a fit-bit, and most sci-fi of all: direct brain-computer interaction.

40,000 people in the US already have computer chips in their head, as part of how their brains work.

These are mostly simple chips which release electric pulses to help alleviate epilepsy and other brain diseases. But more complex brain-computer integrations are already in use: Cochlea implants provide hearing to those who have lost it. A microphone sends electrical signals into the hearing region of the brain. Wonderfully, the brain learns to hear the new electrical impulses, growing new neural connections to interpret them.

What about a chip to allow the brain to make a Wikipedia or Google search, and hear the results internally. How far off is that?

Professor Cerf talked of his work in recording dreams, using electrodes implanted during brain surgery. This is real technology (if still crude in its outputs -- don't expect a video), being used in post-surgery therapy. The conference also demoed an easy-to-use baseball-cap device which can measure simple moods from brain signals.

Gucci CEO Marco Bizzarri and poet Shanelle Gabriel.
It was a glamourous and diverse conference. The event was hosted by Gucci at their HQ in Milan. Gucci's CEO Marco Bizzarri attended, a dapper giant. Film-star and rock-star Jared Leto added to the glitz.[3] Alongside the rock-star persona, there is also an impressive tech investor -- his portfolio includes Slack, Uber, Snapchat, Spotify, and Airbnb. The attendees were wonderfully diverse. Partly marking how AI has become mainstream, and partly due to Fast Company's design to create a stimulating cross-sector event, there were entrepreneurs, investors, artists, and HR people (amongst others). The event opened with a short music set[4], and a performance poet created live synopsis poems to end each session.

The recurrent theme was looking at how technology affects us. Ben Schwerin from Snapchat spoke well on how tech companies should take more responsibility for the mental effect of systems, and the importance of designing for user benefit, not just good user stats. He also called for more government involvement:
"[Social media] platforms have gotten so big and so powerful that it probably is not the healthiest thing to put that power in the hands of a few people who are motivated by running a for-profit business."
Although the technology discussed at the Fast Company event was new, the questions it raises are old ones. What do we value? What is important about being Human? and, How do we organise for the general good?

The questions may be as old as humanity -- but the emphasis has changed. Super-human technology has moved these questions from a matter of individual philosophy, to one for public policy.

[1] More on Yuval Noah Harari's talk 
[2] More on neuroscientists Cerf and Sabatini
[3] A toke of Jared Leto

A panorama of nice people, and me.

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