Singularity as post digital life

Monday January 30 I attend the kick-off event of the Dutch branch of the Singularity University. I had to miss the first two speakers but the rest of the program managed to deliver a pile of information that presented the visions of the Singularity University.

pictures by Henk-Jan Winkeldermaat

It fits the mission of SU put a strong focus on technology as solution for the challenges of world. The singularity is not for nothing the moment in time that the technology outsmart people and we cannot imagine what that moment and beyond will bring. Hearing all the stories on the day you can be overwhelmed and even become sceptical to all the positiveness. For me however this is all part of the deal. It came to my mind that you can – in a way – compare it to the role art plays for applied design, researching the far ends of possibilities in creativity and storytelling. Singularity has that same role with tech; it is looking for the most extreme developments possible.

The trick is to keep a critical view and filter down based on a realistic context, to combine the far out possibilities into interesting scenarios for the future and embedding the human factors into it. That is of course the very quality of a design approach, and especially something we aim to do within to go back to the day. Six speakers focused on different topics. From AI and robotics, to bio-tech and mobile quantified self. If there was one leading theme to determine, it would be the way life can be translated to data and will go through the same stages of development as the information revolution did. Moore’s Law was a popular reference to sketch the growth paths of the life sciences.The presentation of Brad Templetonstarted on the issues on privacy and insecurity if we emerge into context full of botnets and cloud computing. We need to prevent a police state. We have been very good in recording data, but not yet to analyze it. This will change quickly and a new balance in privacy will emerge. Not states but big corporations will try to control the data with the excuse to help you protecting your data.

Brad had an interesting second part on robocars. He works for the project of the Google Selfdriving Car project (but was not about to say anything on Google) and shared his vision on a shift to a total new world of transportation where we don’t drive ourselves and we are disconnected from the car as mean of possession. Depending on your transportation need we will take an available (electric) ‘car’ that drives us to the right place. The cars distributes themselves for the right coverage of availability, and so we have an unlimited transportation reach and does the car completely shift from product to service.

Cars as a platform. This concept will save lives, reduce parking and can scale on existing infrastructure. And it will change retail. With the use what you need, and electric based cars, this transit will be far more greener. Moore’s law will apply to transportation too.

In his talk and the connecting Q&A he addressed some of the cultural topics; can we live without the possession of a car, who is responsible for accidents (no system is perfect), political and legal issues. We need a system that is not over regulated. There are privacy issues of course and with the unlimited availability of transport we will see health issues by less walking.

What was less addressed was the route to this end point. We will live a long time in a mixed reality with old cars and new cars. Can this mix on the same roads or will the new ones have their one?
What also is a topic is the fun of driving. Brad kept in the concept the possibility to own your car if you want that and are able to pay it. But it is also interesting and likely that we will see gaming principles in the system that provide us with new kicks. The way Chromaroma makes commuting with a London subway more fun for instance. On the other hand we can also expect that the experience factor is compensated in other ways.

Two talks after the lunch break went deeper into life sciences. Raymond McCauley showed how the availability of DNA sequencing is rapidly growing with lower prices and shorter delivery times. Services like 23andme will populize the concept of self research in genomics to know more on your health risks or finding family. Knowing your DNA makes you better prepared is the belief.

I have to say I don’t belong to the group of people that have an urge to know this kind of information on my DNA, interesting though is the shift to a data based biology system, with the same rules of the information society we live in. Moore’s Law also was mentioned here, and the challenge is also to be able to analyze the data, not to generate it.

New phenomenas will emerge. Biohacking, biocuriousity, handheld DNA scanners. Andrew Hessel took it a level higher, developing exponential technology. Cells as networks. DNA is the code that run our computers of life, it is just another programming language.

Our own DNA is rather complex and will take some time before we have accessible tools. But with simpler organisms it will be near future. We check the fish we buy at the purchase moment to know all of its DNA history. We now only need the Google for genomics. The paradigm shift is happening. The geeks for genomes in synbio context. The first initiative of DIY genomics are already there. With Genspace biolab in Brooklyn.

Looking forward he sketched a disruptive change to life cycles. Like cities can grow constantly by constant new innovations. We have to learn to focus on the complete picture, not to try to determine the stuff by taking it apart, as is often done nowadays.

Yeast will be the distribution system for genomics. Better than bacterias. Post Darwinian biology is emerging. Viruses as the biological software; viruses are always connected to cells, does not live on themselves. So is the bio the new cyber? Are we getting synthetic babies. Andrew Hessel believes we will become a new species in this century. Biology is on track to become the next IT industry. Where transparency is the best recipe for security.

Yuri van Geest followed with the examples of planned serendipity. With examples of new mobile mixed reality concepts like the well-known virtual groceries store in Seoul subway. How quantifying everything, every product, every city, car, and ourselves will get us connected to everything, his way of defining the Internet of Things. Details are not the important level, the general level is where we will look.

Marc Goodman in a way elaborated on this as futurist of the FBI and showed his views on future crime. From flasmobs to flashrobs, and from SaaS to CaaS (crime as a service). Bottom-line his message was that all the new technology possibilities will be used by criminals, even more efficiently and faster than everyone else. For a lot of people his insights in the way we will be ‘surveillanced’ and the way criminals can leverage the same techniques with different purposes were mind-bobbling. It was not clear what his proposal was for the solution; more repression or more openness. The latter seems the way to go if you ask me.

His talk could be seen as the foot on the ground of all the stuff before; the new developments will not only be hallelujah. But at the same time he did exactly the same as the others by flowing on a techno blinkers mode. In general the human factor and economic and societal impact in the stories was hardly addressed. You can easily be carried away in techno utopia forgetting the real impact it has in day to day life.

For me here lies an interesting challenge in using the insights of the singularity to move forward. We need to embed the possibilities in a context of beliefs. Not let the flow of innovation become a bully in our thinking, but balancing it with the quality of life we want to achieve and make it a demand driven situation by creating design and demand driven solutions. With that in mind there are some very interesting disruptive changes ahead in our living context.

The scholarship contest for students is a chance to focus more on this; what are the challenges that can be solved with these new technologies emerging. The execution of this challenge will be of course the proof of the pudding.

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I am a design director at Structural. I curate and organize ThingsCon Netherlands and I am chairman of the Cities of Things Foundation. Before I was innovation and strategy director at tech and innovation agency INFO, visiting researcher and lab director at the Delft University of Technology coordinating Cities of Things Delft Design Lab.

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