I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things. (Douglas Adams)
For the past month I’ve been wandering around Brussels where we held our most recent Brave Conversations with a view to more fully understanding the European Union, particularly from the perspective of my new role as President of DEF. Through the DEF network I have attended numerous EU sponsored events and met with some wonderful people within the Brussels Bubble who are working to create Europe’s digital future.
A few things in particular have struck me during this time:
- Europe is an idea which the European Union holds together through its institutions, processes and people
- The average age of a Member of the European Parliament is 52, fairly similar to the UK and other countries including Australia
- The Europeans are the absolute masters of developing Legislation, which, a number of people commented, was ‘our number one export’!
- There seems to be a palpable fear of Europe being left behind in the digital ‘race’ which is currently driving the global economy – this was most evident at the EIT’s Grow Digital and Digital Europe’s Summer Summit.
Very conveniently during this period Apple held it’s annual World Wide Developers’ Conference (WWDC) where it annually releases it’s new products and this year didn’t disappoint with the launch of Vision Pro. Many are sceptical of the move in to metaverse but personally I think this will be a defining moment as Apple continues to play the long game (this article is well worth reading on this).
Why? Because the Vision Pro gives us a glimpse of a human future in which our mediated communications are finally released from the physical realm and can blend seamlessly with the digital world.
As I watched the presentation of Apple’s Vision Pro I kept thinking about J. J. Gibson’s Theory of Affordances which I first came across when I read Shoshana Zuboff’s 2002 book The Support Economy. Zuboff had begun to explore this idea in her first book, In The Age of the Smart Machine (1988) where she saw that the digital computer enabled the process of informating which would ensure that everything that could be translated into information would be – exchanges, events, objects – and could be used for surveillance and control.
The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. … It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment. (James J. Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, 1979)
In The Support Economy Zuboff explores how this applies to the individuation of consumption, where the convergence between Consumers’ desires, Technological capabilities and Organisational innovations means that
The new individuals seek true voice, direct participation, unmediated influence, and identity-based community because they are comfortable using their own experience as a basis for making judgements.
Zuboff uses the Theory of Affordances to describe the characteristics of digital information:
- It bestow global transparency and enable the capacity to inform in a way which is visible, sharable, knowable, mobile and manageable. This provides greater accountability and responsibility but also results in a demand for better business practices
- It enables humans to more effectively and efficiently deal with complexity
- It provides the opportunity for comprehensive understanding through collaboration and co-ordination as a result of distributed learning and customisation
- It provides immediacy – – anywhere, anyhow, anytime
- It enables infinite plasticity in the manipulation and shaping of products and information
- The result is that supply chain relationships become kaleidoscopic rather than linear processes, without reference to geographical location.
So let’s begin to think about what Vision Pro could potentially offer as compared with three other vision-products.
The flawed but extraordinary Vision shows that the technological struggle to make spatial computing a reality is being won. The next race is to discover what it is for. Apple has just fired the starting gun. (The Economist).
The beauty of thinking in Affordances is that it is we humans who will figure out new ways to use anything … be it Vision Pros or walking paths.
Which brings me to some of the conversations I heard in Brussels.
A couple of years ago the World Economic Forum started talking about Industry 4.0 which they defined as the merging the physical, digital and biological worlds in ways that create both huge promise and potential peril.
Personally I never bought in to this … I felt that even the use of the word industry was completely missing the point of the digital revolution and told me more about the mindset of the people coming up with the idea than what was going on.
The word industry has a number of definitions:
- a group of productive enterprises or organizations that produce or supply goods, services, or sources of income (Britannica)
- manufacturing activity as a whole; a distinct group of productive or profit-making enterprises; a department or branch of a craft, art, business, or manufacture; systematic labour especially for some useful purpose or the creation of something of value (Miriam Webster)
At Grow Digital the Panel of speakers talked about Industry 5.0 which they see as being complementary to Industry 4.0 and providing a shift from a focus on economic value to a focus on societal value, and a shift in focus from welfare to wellbeing.
According to the International Society of Automation
While the theme of Industry 4.0 revolves around connectivity through cyber-physical systems, Industry 5.0—while also aligned with platforms made possible by Industry 4.0—also addresses the relationship between “man and machine,”
Which means that people are beginning to see the word industry as linking to social and societal change – which is what Web Science has been talking about for two decades. There is a teleological elements to Affordances here because as we perceived the uses of things this changes how we integrate them in to our lives, which then has social and even political consequences.
In his book The Goddess versus the Alphabet polymath Leonard Shlain postulated that the invention of writing led to an increased linearisation of human thought which became more logical and process driven which then impacted how we structured our societies and systems of governance. Shlain believed that two inventions in the 20th Century would radically change this: the typewriter (where we use both hands for input) and the television (where we receive information spatially and through moving images).
Another perspective is that of psychologist Iain McGilcrist who argued that Western thinking has oscillated between being left-brain and right-brain dominated (The Matter of Things):
[Y]ou could say, to sum up a vastly complex matter in a phrase, that the brain’s left hemisphere is designed to help us ap-prehend – and thus manipulate – the world; the right hemisphere to com-prehend it – see it all for what it is.
If even some of what Shlain and McGilcrist say is correct then Spatial computing is going to have as significant an impact on our societies as the invention of writing did 5,000 years ago and we are already seeing evidence of this in the generations now who rarely hand-write (and certainly can’t read hand writing) and who predominantly communicate through visual or aural social media – personally I find that I would often prefer to listen to a podcast or watch a video than read reams of text.
Much of this comes down to personal learning styles and different types of intelligence, as well as age and demographics. Which brings me back to Douglas Adams’ quote where we started. I think the use of the term Industry 5.0 reflects much of the above – linear thinking and demographics – most senior managers globally are in the age bracket of Adams over thirty-fives and thus have a natural inclination to see things as they have been, not as they could become.
We are still largely seeing the world through the prism of the industrial age.
So is this Industry 5.0? Not even remotely. This is the Age of Information plus Humanity+ plus Psychohistory plus every science fiction story you’ve ever read.
This is where I think we are now approaching an event horizon in terms of how we see the world, which I began to write about last year. I think that this means we are now extremely limited in our ability to imagine the future that is emerging as the result of the technologies we have already created – Artificial Intelligence, Spatial Computing, BioEngineering, Limitless Energy – and the speed with which it is coming is something totally unprecedented in recorded human history. Even creating new Science Fiction is a challenge (which Charlie Brooker found when he tried to get ChatGPT to write a Black Mirror episode) because it is all based on our experience of life living in a human physical analogue world and the affordances this provides us.
So where can we look for clues as to what might be evolving?
- With young people, the so-called digital natives, who have grown up post internet, who don’t necessarily thinking linearly and are not as shackled with the industrial mindset. Some of these people are finding everything cool and exciting, others are downright terrified, but as with each younger generation they are the ones challenging the status quo whilst simultaneously being caught up in the distraction of media consumption.
- With older people, those who are aging and are the ones needing to use technologies to help them live and enhance their lives. These people are among the last to remember life before the internet and to fully appreciate that changes to our human system that have been wrought and often they are highly tech-savvy – we used to call them Silver Surfers!
- Aligned with this are those with physical and learning difficulties who don’t fit in to the stereotypes that society has imposed on our physical and learning systems – those with dyslexia, visual and hearing impairment, and those who have problems interacting with the world of text and linearity we have currently constructed. (Azimov’s Stranger in Paradise is a beautiful short story that is well worth reading on this).
- Then there is the non-Western world where millions of people are using the technologies in ways that we WEIRD people don’t necessarily think of or understand.
In other words we need to first recognise and then seek to move beyond own human filter-bubbles and be open to diversity in the greatest possible sense. We need to recalibrate as human beings, be open to and harness our human emotions – be they fear, anger, excitement, frustration – in order to prepare for what is coming and then do what we humans do best – work together to proactively use these incredible tools we’ve invented to help us solve the problems around us rather than mindlessly be distracted with our online shopping and obsession with immediate satisfaction in the vain hope that they just go away.
This is the work now. It is not easy, but nothing about our survival as a species has been up until now, nor should it be.
A few weeks ago I had the distinct pleasure to do an interview with Simon Western on his Edgy Ideas podcast.
As always in a real human-to-human conversation it enabled me to think through some ideas which have been percolating for quite a while.
Thank you Simon and for Aodhan Moran for introducing us.
Listen to the “Edgy Ideas” Podcast with Simon Western.
Last week we held our 21st Brave Conversations event at Atelier 29 in Brussels and the first in partnership with the Digital Enlightenment Forum (DEF).
We began on a wet, cold Brussels morning but garnered a group of intelligent, engaged and curious individuals keen to converse with other humans in the room about our digital lives in 21st Century.
Since our last events in 2022 much seems to have shifted within the digital landscape, particularly with the release “in the wild” of ChatGPT and other generative AI and large language models. It took ChatGPT just five days to gain 1 million users following its release in November 2022 and before long thousands of very noted people had signed the Future of Life Institute Open Letter to Pause Giant AI Experiments.
By the time we got to Brussels even the Smart Humans who had invented the tools themselves (such as people like scientist Geoffrey Hinton) were worried and struggling to keep up and the major tech companies were scrambling to maintain some sort of competitive edge by rushing to integrate the tools in to their mainstream offerings (for example Microsoft’s launch of Co-Pilot).
So what is this all about? For anyone who has been watching the tech space the events of the past few months were entirely predictable, as was the human excitement / panic / reaction / confusion that followed. We’ve been here before, although not necessarily with a suite of technologies with the impact to profoundly change human society as these ones. Ever since the invention of writing people have warned about it’s dire consequences – Socrates of writing; Gessner of the printing press; Carr of Social Media.
In all the hype swirling around at the minute, and particularly that driven by the major tech companies, we need to remember that the success of humanity as a dominant species comes from our ability to to co-operate with each other, to transmit and build on the knowledge of our forebears, and to develop and utilise tools that have become increasingly sophisticated.
Human beings have a unique ability to cooperate in large, well-organized groups and employ a complex morality that relies on reputation and punishment. (Fraans de Waal
The tools we are currently developing are merely the latest in a very long line which have helped us survive and thrive, and these tools too will become necessary in order to help us meet the challenges we currently face.
But as Roy Amara states
Technology is neither good nor bad, but nor is it neutral.
So what did all these mean for the conversations we had in Brussels on 12th May?
After the years of Covid one of the things we feel is most important with Brave Conversations is to get the humans in the room, and a number of people made a big effort to get to Brussels to be with us in person. This meant that there were human-to-human interactions, unmediated by any technology, and the ability for each person to explore their ideas within the physical confines of a human space.
We had a blend of participants which included the Board of the Digital Enlightenment Forum, academics, some people working in policy with the European Union, Students, and a couple of creatives. A fabulous blend of minds and perspectives to craft interesting insights and a nuanced approach to how everyone was feeling about the current technology onslaught. Some of the comments below give a flavour of the conversation but perhaps the most important was when one participant told me that she came along because she can’t find anywhere else to have these conversations in a safe space without judgement or a predetermined agenda.
This is what we seek to create in Brave Conversations and which our partnership with the Digital Enlightenment Forum promised to bring.
I would like to thank as always Leanne Fry for her continuing partnership, it was wonderful to work with Thanassis Tiropanis yet again and thanks to him for helping facilitate. To the Board of DEF thank you for your support of the event and to the inimitable Myriam de Greef an enormous thanks because without Myriam no conversations would have been had!
Title adapted from Shoshana Zuboff’s ground-breaking 1988 book
Last week I attended a Group Relations Conference in India. These events are always intense (this one even more so!) but they provide a unique opportunity to consider oneself with a human social system.
One of the things that occurred to me as we were exploring the role of the unconscious as it was playing out in the here and now (all psychobabble terms but in fact hugely important) was that there are multiple unconsciouses which operate as we live our dual analogue-digital lives. Carl Jung described what he called the collective unconscious which complements and influences all of our conscious thinking and actions as we participate within the human system. I believe that there is now in addition a digital unconscious which is emerging in the digital realm as the result of our digital interactions within the Social Machine and an even more powerful machine unconscious which is evolving in the artificial intelligences we are building. I drew the image below to try to illustrate my conjecture to the group – needless to say most didn’t understand.
In What Technology Wants co-founder of Wired Magazine and co-Chair of the Long Now Foundation Kevin Kelly talks about The Technium: A Living System of Technology which encompasses the entire system around technology – culture, art, social institutions, through to “the extended human”. In his latest blog post Kelly states that
For a while I’ve been intensely exploring generative AI systems, creating both text and visual images almost daily, and I am increasingly struck by their similarity to dreams. The AIs seem to produce dream images and dream stories and dream answers. The technical term is “hallucinations” but I think they are close to dreams. I’ve come to suspect that this similarity between dreams and generative AI is not superficial, poetic, or coincidental. My unexpected hunch is that we’ll discover that the mechanism that generates dreams in our own heads will be the same (or very similar) to the ones that current neural net AI’s use to generate text and images.
The foundational mode of the intelligence is therefore dreaming.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not necessarily agreeing with Kevin Kelly here nor am I buying in to the hype about machines hallucinating. What I am pointing out is that the machines are analyzing human data using human crafted algorithms and therefore there is something of our unconscious that is embedded in their emanations which is now being made explicit and visible. We can only refer to concepts and ideas in human terms (hence we anthroporphosize) and to describe what the machines are doing is almost like taking us in to our own unconscious (this is where the concept of Azimov’s Psychohistory comes in to play).
One way of accessing the collective human unconscious is through Social Dreaming, the practice of sharing, associating to and working with dreams in a matrix in order to identify social trends and social dynamics. As our machines are coming together and bringing our data with them it may well be that what we are seeing is a manifestation of the collective human unconscious expressed through the output of the machines – which may seem like hallucinations – but how can we know given the opaque nature of how they operate? And, if they have begun to go down that path then they are already moving beyond our realm of understanding.
The real challenge will come when they become able to acknowledge and recognise this unconscious as something different from a probabalistic algorithm, or are embodied, as the work of people like Rodney Brooks and so much of our Science Fiction (Humans, Blade Runner, Ex Machina) has shown us,
So what does this mean for us as humans?
Up until the recent advances brought about by the large language models such as ChatGPT talking with the average person about the advancing machine intelligence was like describing an elephant. Every person sees things that directly relate only to them just like the story of the Blind Man and the Elephant.
This relates as much to technologists as to everyone else as I’ve witnessed countless times. The most obvious to me was when
I heard a very notable “father” of the digital world speak at a conference and when asked what he would recommend about how to address the rise of pornography on the Web he responded “well just don’t look at it!”
Many of the people I’ve met who have built the machinery of the digital world are extremely naïve, building the tools because they can, not asking whether they should. When Geoffrey Hinton resigned from Google last week he commented
I console myself with the normal excuse: If I hadn’t done it, somebody else would have,
As with all kids in the candy shop scenarios if you give a scientist a problem and lots of funding they will develop new tools and techniques regardless of the potential consequences. Hinton and others like him saw only part of the Elephant without considering it as a whole animal let alone part of a herd.
Which brings in the question of ethics. Whilst some of the big companies have created Ethics Advisory Boards the reality is that much of the development work in the field of AI is now happening in the open source space where there is no supervision or oversight. These people still want to move fast and break things and the very nature of Ethics is designed to slow things down by asking difficult and challenging questions.
Governments and regulation are also designed to slow things down because politics and policy operates on human time which is analogue, messy and the very opposite of an efficient machine. Humans need time to process, and our relationships are based on what people like Anna Machin and Rachel Botsman call Trust Friction – the stickiness and the glue that underpins how human systems operate.
The whole point of human relationships is that they are not efficient, because they take time and brain power to develop and maintain. Trust needs friction. (Anna Machin)
Human systems are analogue and analogue takes time. In the analogue world:
- You can’t fire off a letter you need to write and post it
- you can do an online transfer you need to go to the bank
- you can’t immediately alter a design you need to redraw it
- you can’t just be friends with everyone you need to build trust through shared experiences which takes time.
Machines don’t want friction – it slows them down, makes things break and ruins their power to work ratio – i.e. “productivity”. The ultimate idea of this is the Paperclip Problem where smart machines instructed to make paper clips will consume all the resources in the universe (including us) to just make paper-clips.
With the advent of ChatGPT and it’s brethren the removal of friction within our human-machine interactions has now gone to the next level and smart AI is now being embedded in to pretty much all of our digital processes – just think of how many conversations your have and hear which involved technology of some sort.
So now I’d like to bring in a new analogy, the frog in the pot of soup as the temperature is gradually turned up.
Our human need to process and understand means that we as humanity have been sitting in the digital soup for at least half a century but in the first half of 2023 suddenly it is feeling a little uncomfortably warm.
As the soup heats up there are some who are going to want to jump out of the soup – there are some who going to boil and there are those who will adapt.
The questions now seem to me to be who each of these will be and what will happen in each case.
Let’s consider some options:
Firstly, those who want to leave. It may be too late but, as with the Luddites in the Industrial Revolution, there is much wisdom in what they have to say and perhaps an alternate reality has much to offer as it always has throughout the ages. There is something of this in Hari Seldon’s concept of building a Foundation on the furthest planet in order to separate itself from the chaos of the main system – an opportunity to isolate, slow down, reboot and recreate.
Secondly, those who are trapped. Sadly there is always a high cost to any radical change and many will find the “new world” frightening and overwhelming. Just one example is the rate of teenage girl suicide already. Along with many others I have spent the past three decades of my life working to understand the transition that is upon us and help people prepare for the change with minimal effect. Some have heeded the lessons, most have sat and enjoyed the warmer water oblivious to the dangers. I’m not sure anything can help these people any more as I think the rate of change is going to be too fast.
I think both of these groups will struggle and push back through both fear and anger and the manifestation of this could be dangerous.
Finally, there will be those who adapt, survive and thrive.
With all the noise about the technology and how fast it’s progressing or whether it should be paused or stopped the real point is what are the humans going to do about it? Therefore it is the third group I am most interested in and I believe that it is being led by the younger generation but needs to be supported and mentored by the 21st Elders who have memories of the analogue world and the value of its friction and temporal nature.
Some fear the AI Apocalypse and that non-Western (WEIRD) cultures may gain a technological advantage. This is problematic on so many levels particularly given that it is the minority-population WEIRD West that has created the culture of growth and the technologies themselves. Some alternative thinking might be precisely what is needed now and some less privileged cultures may, in fact, be better prepared for what is to come.
The history of automation is that we humans have invented machines to take away the dirty, dangerous and dull jobs … now we are taking away a whole host of others. These technologies can be used to solve the very challenging problems which confront us in the 21st Century and the sooner we learn to work constructively and creatively with the machines the sooner we will harness the power that is before us for good.
The more I feel people heading in one direction as a herd the more I want to go the other way and explore what is happening there – this is where the adaptive survivors will be.
I took this photo in Tanzania in 2019 as the vehicles descended on a group of lions.
This morning I read this article which described the aggressive tourism that is increasingly occurring around the world and its impact on wildlife and the environment.
What really resonated was the feeling I’ve had over the last week as I’ve wandered around the walking tracks of the Three Capes in South Eastern Tasmania, expensively curated with kilometers of duck-boarding, hand rails, safety signs and idyllic viewpoints of the need to keep the humans out of the wild and on the tracks.
I last bushwalked in Tasmania forty years ago, in the days where tracks were tracks, huts were huts and the Franklin Dam Blockade was in full swing around Australia as a whole. I trekked around Tassie with friends, one of whom knew most of the Greenies manning the blockade and who hailed her as we approached on our tourist boat on the river. As a contrast our other friends were those who were working as engineers in the mines and sternly warned us to be very careful about everything we said, particularly when drinking in the Queenstown pub! And we had to take the No Dams stickers off our backpacks.
Memories of those days of the freedom to travel and the freedom to protest were brought back when I watched Franklin the movie which I thought gave an excellent overview of the key political issues of the time which saw the birth of the Green movement in Australia and clearly portrayed both the history and how the various players in the game behaved. The Franklin River was saved, a national consciousness about environmentalism was awoken and Tasmania’s place as a wilderness destination was cemented in our consciousness.
The uniqueness of Tasmania is not just in its natural environment but also in it’s creative scene, the most obvious of which is the Museum of Old and New Art, MONA, where, since 2011, gambling millionaire David Walsh has created his dream museum of quite literally whatever he wants. I first visited MONA shortly after it opened and this time, a decade on, as I wandered around I had a very strong feeling that I was in something akin to West World, and that every step I took, every swipe i made on the MONA App I made, and every cursive glance I took at a piece of ‘art’ would be captured and analysed by Walsh and his curators to tweak my behaviour and that of others as co-exhibits in the museum. It was a delicious – if slightly unsettling – paradox of who / what was observing who / what for whose enjoyment?
This feeling mirrored the one I had walking along the duck-boarding of the Three Capes despite the fact that at MONA I was in a man-made museum.
I spoke to some friends in Tassie about these experiences realising that this is happening everywhere around the world. The reality is that in the age of the Anthropocene it is we homo sapiens that have become parasitic in our behaviours greedily consuming not only things but experiences as we seek to entertain ourselves and reconnect somehow with the natural environment. Therefor, in order to protect that natural environment, which often includes the lands of first nations’ peoples who lived in balance with it for millennia, it is imperative that modern humans be herded, guided and quarantined, allowed to ‘look but don’t touch, but always at a safe distance. I felt this very keenly as I wandered along the duck-boarding, read all the warning signs and was gently chastened by our guides as I stepped too close to the edge of the cliff. I felt a long way from Rousseau’s State of Nature regardless of how free I think I am.
Saving me from myself and saving nature from me.
As a corollary to this is the state we’re all in at the moment, certainly in Western societies, where the serendipity seems to be disappearing in our lives. No longer is it as easy to just rock up to a restaurant and have a meal, or decide to visit a museum or go on an adventure. Just like the curated wilderness we now need to download the app, pre-book our tables and guarantee with a credit card, and pre-state our food allergies or preferences. Again we are being herded and shepherded in to a predetermined experience where some of the surprise and adventure is actually removed in order to give us something that we can trust, that we can know we’re being taken care of and can participate safely from a distance.
My 21 year old self would not quite know what to think about all of this (let alone my parents and grandparents!), but it is all predictable and people have been describing this emerging world for a long time … the Club of Rome, The Matrix and E. M. Foster’s The Machine Stops. We humans are very good at denying the need to change, but also incredibly successful at adapting to it and the next few decades are going to present our species with a greater rate of change than anything in our recorded history. We will see more pandemics, more extreme weather events, more forced migration, more inequality, more autocrats, different conflicts, and more technological change than our intellectual systems will able to cope with. We will see more stress, more anxiety and more apathy, combined with many feeling a sense of loss and enormous amounts of grieving.
But we will also seen unprecedented opportunities to truly change the way humanity lives on the planet (hopefully to benefit not just us but other species we share it with) and a profound redefinition of what humanity actually is.
As we at Intersticia begin our second decade there is much to ponder about who we are, what we do, and how we can constructively contribute to the skills and capabilities of 21st Century Stewardship for the sake of those we serve not for ourselves. We need to ensure that we can stay above the maelstrom and not fall in to the trap of the Red Queen Effect but work to more fully understand the systemic changes from the perspective of the interstice where everything is possible and there is no benefit of falling in to the default of good / bad; right / wrong but realise the advantage of seeing things holistically and systemically and understanding humans as part of the broader Gaia system rather than a parasitic virus that needs to be taken out of it.
2023 is going to be a very interesting year.
(Illustration by Sir John Tenniel from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, 1871)
In November 2021 we finally realised our Future Worlds Challenge with the assistance of the MIT App Inventor Research team and a group of wonderful young people from around the globe.
In September 2022 we had the opportunity to further develop this thanks to the invitation of the Government of Sharjah to integrate both Future Worlds Challenge and Brave Conversations in to the 2022 International Government Communications Forum. The opportunity was created by Ibrahim El Badawi who has been supporting Leanne Fry and me with Brave Conversations since our first event in 2017 and has helped craft and present numerous Brave Conversations events for an Arabic speaking audience over the past few years.
From the outset both Leanne and I realised that Sharjah was going to be something a bit different. The events were to be integrated into a major conference within a completely different cultural context and, to be honest, we had no idea who was going to turn up or when! Uppermost in our minds was the need to be mindful of cultural values and English proficiency, let alone a familiarity with technology beyond just retail use. And, we had to keep our energy up for four full days with the two events overlapping on the third day. As a bonus we were thrilled that Professor Dame Wendy Hall agreed to join us in Sharjah to help us anchor our events within the broader context of the conference and also to link it to the very important work that she is doing around digital governance and Artificial Intelligence.
From the moment we arrived in to a very hot and humid Dubai we were greeted with superb Emiratee hospitality thanks to Ohood Al Aboodi and her team of the IGCC. In addition we had our own private tour guide with Ibrahim driving us around in his red Mustang. This gave us some valuable insights in to the Emirate particularly with a visit to University City and the very impressive House of Wisdom, one of the most beautiful learning centres in the world. To give some context Sharjah is the third largest city in the UAE and capital of the Emirate of Sharjah. It seeks to position itself as the centre for Islamic culture and knowledge within the UAE and the IGCC Forum is an event which focuses on government communication as central to this.
What became clear to us was that the IGCC Forum provided a perfect opportunity to explore some of the themes of Brave Conversations within this Arabic cultural context and specifically to engage with young people through Future Worlds Challenge. In this we were ably supported by some delightful young Emirate interpreters and facilitatators, but most of al the MIT App Inventor team of Claire Tan, Maura Kelleher and Nghi Nguyen who quite literally worked their tails off with us reorganising the programme and having to innovate on the fly when it came to teaching the code.
We arrived to the venue on Monday 26th September for Day One not really knowing what to expect. Gradually the room filled and over the four days we were joined by students from the local university, groups of school children aged between 15 to 17, a contingent from the UAE Military, and a number of Directors of Government Communications from the Government of Sharjah. Apart from the fact that we were never quite sure when people would arrive or how many of them there would be, everyone was fully engaged and enthusiastically threw themselves in to both the coding tasks, the Challenge and the conversations.
Both Brave Conversations and Future Worlds Challenge are designed to get participants to use their imagination and creative thinking and one way we seek to stimulate this is to highlight the importance of Science Fiction. When the Chinese wanted to find out why the West was so far ahead with their development of technology they discovered it was that the West has a deep history of Science Fiction. When we posed this question to our Arabic audience it was curious that there was so little Arabic work of this genre despite some encouraging early shoots (Larissa Sanour’s work in particular). This is one thing we encouraged our young audience to explore more particularly as it opens the mind to possibilities, the core of which is at the heart of Future Worlds Challenge.
The Challenge built on the work we had done in 2021 and asked one simple question – How do you build a Future World ten years hence (i.e. 2032) that you would actually want to live in that can sustain human life on this planet?
There are three aspects to the world that you propose based on:
- How do we think? What do we need to change about our values and expectations?
- How do we live? How do we live sustainably within the planetary ecosystem?
- What technologies can support this? Technology needs to serve not lead.
We divided the participants into seven groups of mixed ages and genders and each one chose to focus on one aspect of designing a better Future World. Each was given time to work on their presentations and then give a five minute presentation with five minutes of questions.
How did we judge these Future Worlds? We asked three judges – volunteers Prashathi Reddy and our facilitator Hussein plus Claire Tan, to consider the worlds based on these criteria:
- Does your world make sense?
- Is it realistic?
- How would Conversational AI support your World?
- Do you believe in it?
Following on from this first round three ‘winners’ were chosen who then presented to the IGCC Judges Panel at the end of the day and this lead to a final ‘winning team’ announced at the Closing Ceremony Dinner of the Forum.
The teams were:
- Ahlam – Your Sleeping Matters
- Bioare – Sustainability for Life
- Fast Move – Accessibility for Blind People
- FWPW – Future Without Plastic Waste
- HRPI – Healthcare, Renewable, Printing and Inequality
- MOCAP – Project Charity Becomes Human
- Sooma – Zakat Calculator
To be honest there was no winning team.
Despite the nerves and hours of waiting around each and every person who was with us worked hard, contributed ideas and energy and helped make the event a success, and it is a huge complement to them that we were able to push the boundaries of Future Worlds Challenge and develop the programme into something that is now fully formed and a complement to Brave Conversations, which at Sharjah, was merely the supporting act!
The most precious thing for us was in being able to give these young people insights in to the dual analogue-digital worlds that are emerging and in this we were truly blessed to have the inimitable Dame Wendy Hall. Wendy, as always, gave selflessly to our groups and they gained insights from her more intimate session with us that she then further expanded in the main conference.
There is so much talk at the minute about the Metaverse and Wendy explored some of the challenges of these metaverses (which is much more correct). She very cleverly explained the issues of privacy by focusing on digital clothes shopping and what we will be exposing as we shop online. Wendy always has this gift for bringing crucial messages home – within a largely male audience it was the women who were the most wide-eyed and concerned.
This was really brought home during our final session of Brave Conversations when I looked at one of the main stands in the exhibition hall where one company was encouraging people to ‘get scanned and create your digital twin’. How much did people think about this before they eagerly participated and what questions should they have been asking?
As is happening in so many aspects of our lives we have absolutely no protection from companies such as this who are encouraging us to give our data with no respect for privacy or accountability back to us. This is exactly the same as companies such as Ancestry.com taking peoples’ DNA which strikes me as not just fraudulent but downright exploitative.
As Mark Zuckerberg is finding out there is a risk to rushing in to these new frontiers and gradually governments are beginning to wake up to their naivety of the past two decades and finally grapple with these issues. Too slowly of course, but they are beginning. This is the message that I would have like to see at Sharjah and hopefully some of the attendees listened.
As all societies keenly embrace the world of digital and see it is as the key to the future it is events such as these where we can bring savvy young people together with the not so savvy elders to really question the future world that are crucial to having some semblance of control and we are hugely grateful to the Government of Sharjah for providing one such opportunity.
Our thanks to Ibrahim El Badawi for creating this opportunity, and especially to Ohood Al Aboodi for all the hard work she did in getting us to Sharjah and making us feel so welcome.