When Software Eats the World… and People, too?

Elements of a talk given during API Days Paris, January 31, 2018

I’ll start by reading an excerpt from a paper given by 4 “evil robots” who were sent back from the future in 2082, to talk at the international CHI conference in 2013:

1. “CHI and the Future Robot Enslavement of Humankind; A Retrospective”

A paper by Ben Kirman, Conor Linehan, Shawn Lawson, Dan O’Hara (link)

 “As robots from the future, we are compelled to present this important historical document which discusses how the systematic investigation of interactive technology facilitated and hastened the enslavement of mankind by robots during the 21st Century.
“The CHI community has taken on the specific burden of responsibility to design technology such that it is usable, accessible, effective, fun and ubiquitous. On the face of things, the results of these efforts seem to make people’s lives easier, more enjoyable, better informed, healthier and more sustainable. However, the reality is that this could not be further from the truth.
“The truth is this: that we, as robots from the future, have watched over the eager, yet misguided, work of the CHI community and occasionally steered it towards its true goal: the complete enslavement of humankind by its evil robot masters.
“Although there has been a history of concern about this eventuality, the field tirelessly focussed on the improvement of technology to make it more usable, accessible and fun, while simultaneously more ubiquitous, hidden and capable of understanding and controlling the behaviour of humans. Indeed, significant effort was expended in developing systems that either directly or surreptitiously increased the workload of humans, freeing up machines to engage in more fulfilling pursuits. The majority of 21st century HCI research was for the purposes of increasing the reliance of humans on, and affection for, machines.
“Our closing statement is to congratulate the CHI community for creating the inevitability of human enslavement by machines.”

–> My question: are you, API developers, providing the back-office for this? Am I an evil robot from the future? Is Simone Cicero, who was on stage just before, another robot?

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“Imaginaries of the Future”: Militant Imaginizing

Based in the School of Architecture at Newcastle University (UK), Imaginaries of the Future: Historicising the Present is an “international research network designed to think through how we might think about the future. It does not advance specific visions of the future as such, but rather seeks to develop strategies for conceptualising ‘the future’, without doing violence to the bodies that might inhabit and (re)produce it. It is utopian rather than futurological in orientation, and believes that the utopian should not be reduced to the fanciful, impossible or authoritarian.”

The 6 symposia it has organised over its 3 years of existence (2014-2017) have a distinctly militant flavour, which makes the programme all the more powerful in looking at, and powering, utopias:

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How humans helped robots enslave them

During the CHI 2013 conference, four robots from the future, posing as legitimate researchers, presented a paper called “CHI and the Future Robot Enslavement of Humankind; A Retrospective“. The paper illustrates how the sustained effort of Computer-Human Interaction (CHI) specialists “tirelessly focussed on the improvement of technology to make it more usable, accessible and fun, while simultaneously more ubiquitous, hidden and capable of understanding and controlling the behaviour of humans“, thereby creating both the technology and the mindsets that would make domination by evil robots possible, and unstoppable.

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Using science-fiction as a trigger for innovation

SciFiDI_Summit_postcard_web-02The “Design Intelligence for the Future Home” graphic book that illustrates the workshops’ outcomes is cool, yet not really convincing. The four stories lack complexity and sometimes, consistency. What’s interesting, though, is that the world in which the stories happen is almost dystopian, clearly contradicting the Singularity University’s usual positive outlook on a future where technology has solved “humanity’s most urgent, persistent challenges“.
However, workshop participants seemed to enjoy the experience and find it useful, as Alison Berman reports – and that is probably all that matters in the end. Her post also gives us a glimpse into the methodology used.

Ci’Num (2005-2007): On the future of “Digital Civilizations”

CinumOrganized by Aquitaine Europe Communication, directed and curated by myself and Daniel Erasmus, Ci’Num was a global, multicultural, 3-year foresight process (2005-2007) which intended to shed a new light on the future of our digital civilizations, taking into account geopolitical, cultural and economic differences. Our focus was:

  • on the specific contribution of, and challenges related to, the emergence of ubiquitous and “intimate” technologies stemming from the convergence between nanotech, biotech, IT and cognitive science;
  • on the social appropriation and production of technology;
  • and on the ways, tools and methods through which we become empowered to shape our personal and collective futures – i.e., not on figuring out the most likely futures, but in recognizing uncertainties and looking for ways to maximize choices and opportunities in any given future.

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Car Wars: Cory Doctorow’s dystopian SF story about self-driving cars

33855195At the request of Melbourne’s Deakin University, in 2016, the Canadian writer and journalist Cory Doctorow wrote an interesting story on how the real-world development of self-driving cars could go really, really wrong.

As Doctorow himself puts it: “The story, Car Wars, takes the form of a series of vignettes that illustrate the problem with designing cars to control their drivers, interspersed with survey questions to spur discussion of the wider issues of governments and manufacturers being able to control the operation of devices we own and depend on.” (actually, the survey questions don’t really help “spurring discussions”, as Deakin professor Gleb Beliakov provides his own, unequivocal and somewhat laconic answer to all of them – you can, however, view the survey results here)

In the story, the interaction between highly intelligent self-driving software, rules and exceptions forced into the car systems by all kinds of authorities, and a well-planned act of behavorial hacking, forces most of the city’s car into behaving like a herd of frightened buffaloes driven over the edge of a cliff. All, but one cleverly (although illegally) software-hacked car. But of course, if you had the right to hack your car, and if everyone did it, the situation could get even worse. Or could it?