Since the term was first used in the 1970s, Silicon Valley, a geographical location in California, has become synonymous with the life-changing technology invented there. Today it is just one of a number of tech hubs in the US and around the world. To find out more, Speak Up met up with technology forecaster Paul Saffo. We began by asking him where technology was going next:
Paul Saffo (American accent): Digital technology, telecommunications, computing is the solvent leeching the glue out of our institutions and changing our relationships and changing the sense of distance. So that gets our attention. But if you’re looking out fifty or a hundred years, we’ll look back and say, well, actually, after about 2020, digital was not the most important technology. The more important technology that’s just building today are the new sciences of the very small. So, life sciences, genetics, genomics. The impact that life sciences will have —and the genomics revolution— on our lives over the next twenty years will make the impact of digital technology look pretty trivial. So, this century is going to be quite a ride.
In fact, says Saffo, creating tech with the purpose of updating humanity is nothing new.
Paul Saffo: We’ve already given ourselves superpowers. Think of personal computers. Think of something as simple as eyeglasses and telescopes and spacecraft. And we’ve merged with our technology all along. Now, that relationship will become ever more intimate. And the interesting question to ask is, are we actually in the early stages of building the precursors to non-biological life? Will the evolution of our species in the next century or so take another form, where we hand it off to evolving machines?
There is much debate as to whether machines can possess human-style intelligence, given how complex our brains are. Saffo believes that they could go beyond that.
Paul Saffo: That idea of the big singularity, where machines become as intelligent as we are, is an intriguing one, but most importantly, if they became as intelligent as we are, they will only be as intelligent as we are for a very short period of time, because then they’ll evolve beyond us so quickly that we won’t even recognise them. If that should happen, if we have super-intelligent machines —and this was a MIT professor who made this observation, his name is Hans Moravec, and he said, “Well, if we’re very, very lucky and we get super-intelligent machines, if we’re very lucky, they will treat us like pets.” And I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t mind having the life of my dog. “However, if we’re very, very unlucky, they will treat us like food.”
Controversially, tech entrepreneurs such as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are spending their money on space travel rather than on saving the Earth, but Saffo sees this as positive for humanity.
Paul Saffo: There’s a lot of controversy about it. But in the case of Jeff Bezos, I can think of no higher use for his wealth and his innovative creativity than to help us, as humankind, become a space-faring civilization. However, the question is, will humans really go into deep space? We’ll go into orbital space, and we may eventually have colonies in a hundred years or so. The question is deep space. And maybe that’s where the non-biological successors to human life go into deep space as our proxies. And I don’t know about you, I just hope they send pictures back.
THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS
And, says Saffo, a narrow form of AI is already very present in our lives, for better or sometimes worse.
Paul Saffo: There are two very distinct types of artificial intelligence. There is so-called narrow AI, which is expert systems and the like. And then there’s AGI, artificial general intelligence, that is actually indistinguishable from human intelligence. You cannot make a single move in society or touch a device or look anything up without touching a narrow AI. We are all a little bit like Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, where she says, “I have always relied upon the kindness of strangers.” Well, in this case, the strangers we are relying on are these anonymous, narrow AIs who are doing all sorts of things to make our lives more convenient, and also probably screwing it up, too. But that’s another story.
THE FUTURE OF FUTURISTS
As a ‘futurist’, Saffo believes you can make predictions based on today’s technology, but nothing is certain.
Paul Saffo: The job of the futurist is to map a cone of uncertainty. What is possible over time? And so, I judge my work not whether I’m right or not on the specific outcome —sometimes I get lucky— but whether the outcome fell within the range of uncertainty that I forecast. And it’s not just that prediction is hard, it’s logically impossible. What I am is a historian of technology who spends most of his time looking at technologies that don’t exist yet. Everything has an antecedent. The foundation for being a good forecaster is to thoroughly understand history.Not take it literally, but look at the patterns of history and see how that flows into the future. I realize jokes translate terribly across cultures, but one that you will often hear in the United States is there are two hikers or hunters out in the woods and they’re getting chased by a bear, and one guy stops to tighten his shoelaces and put on his running shoes. And the other one, his partner, looks at him and says, “How come you’re doing that? You can’t outrun a bear.” And he says, “I only got to outrun you!”