The Internet of Things Revolution

It’s About Much More Than Your Smart Toaster

The year is 2028.  A brand-new indigo blue Infiniti coupe is parked in your garage like a s leek metal panther.  While the all-electric car is charging with power from your internet connected solar system, you are thinking about how this particular model was manufactured.  Nissan, the maker of the Infiniti brand, was able to use Industry 4.0 solutions to cut time and cost  of production while simultaneously improving quality with a zero-down-time predictive maintenance assembly line packed with thousands of IoT sensors.

Once off the manufacturing floor these cars were shipped to dealerships across the country using a fleet of electric semi-autonomous trucks. 

Asset loss and damage due to weather and accidents were avoided completely, and transportation delays were kept to a minimum due the trucking company’s advanced IoT fleet management solution.

Your phone chimes to let you know the charge is complete, and it provides a snapshot of precisely how much juice you pulled from your solar array.  You’re ready to take your new ride for a spin down the highway.  This is not yet a fully autonomous vehicle—those are a few years away yet.  But it does have some advanced self-driving features.  After powering the vehicle Alexa asks for your destination.  The new Costco, of course!

Your route follows a stretch of highway that is authorized for autonomous driving, so you switch to auto-pilot.  While your car “takes the wheel’ you are able to finish that article you were reading in Wired Magazine about 6G wireless networks.  After a few minutes your seat starts to vibrate and Alexa politely requests that you re-take control as you exit the highway.

At Costco you pull into the autonomous parking drop-off lane and tell Alexa to park the car as you hop out. Your car slowly drives on, hunting for a good place to park. 

Entering Costco, you wave your smart pinky ring over the entrance scanner and the glass sliding door swishes open.  Inside you realize that you were so excited to drive your new car that you may have left the front door of your house unlocked.  You check your phone and it shows that you did lock the front door, but you left the garage door open.  Shaking your head, you tap the button on your phone to close the garage door, and while you’re at it you check the security cameras.  All seems fine.

There are no checkout lanes in this Costco.  The cameras in the store have already scanned all the items you put in your cart and will automatically charge them to your credit card account when you leave.  Of course, since this is Costco after all, there are still free samples!  You notice that one of the sample stations is run by a robot.  You watch as the robot calmly prepares and cooks its bite-sized snacks.  It sees you watching, creepily smiles at you,and asks if you would like to try one.  Not quite ready to be served by a robot, you say “no.”

You are aware that your short interaction with this robot has created a data transmission that will be part of a machine learning algorithm.  You just helped this robot get a little bit smarter.

Before leaving the store you whisper into your smart ring to summon your car.  As you walk out of the store, you see your car coming slowly from the distant nether regions of Costco’s enormous parking lot.  It pulls up to you and automatically opens the trunk because it sees that you have a cart full of groceries.

In 2028 the cars on the road are a mix of various stages of autonomy.  Traffic deaths and injuries have begun to fall dramatically in the last two or three years, but American highways will remain dangerous for another decade.  For you, that’s unfortunate, because a distracted driver in an old dumb 2010 SUV blows a red light just as you enter the intersection.  Your car’s accident evasion system cannot avoid the collision entirely, but it is able to orient the impact to your advantage which may have saved your life.  Still, you’ve been in a serious accident.  You’re injured and unconscious.

Your car’s onboard accident assessment system alerts emergency responders and provides them with your exact location and a real-time feed of useful data.  Within seconds the first responders are informed that your car is not flipped, nor it is on fire,but there was a severe impact to the right front corner of the vehicle.  They also know that you were the only occupant.  They even know some basics about your condition:  Bleeding and unconscious, but breathing.

While the emergency responders are on their way, your town’s new smart-city intelligent traffic management system has automatically re-synchronized the traffic lights in the area to clear the way for emergency responding vehicles.

Finally, your car’s onboard system will produce an accident re-creation report.  It will provide the police and your insurance company with data such as your speed and direction on impact, whether the brakes were engaged, whether your car was on auto-pilot at the time of impact, and whether your car took evasive maneuvers and what exactly those were.

Lastly, the diagnostics are sent to Nissan for feedback into their big data algorithms being used to refine autonomous driving capabilities for over-the-air software updates and future vehicles.

This multi-faceted use case demonstrates the powerful potential of IoT in the near future.  Included in this scenario are IoT applications in manufacturing, commercial and personal transportation, energy/utilities, home automation/security, retail shopping, smart city, emergency response systems,law enforcement, health care, and insurance.

How Does it Work?

As this scenario demonstrates IoT is not an industry.  Think of IoT as a technology evolution that will transform ALL industries and sectors in an interconnected way.  IoT should be considered similar to the Industrial Revolution, or the Digital Revolution.

Because IoT is transforming all industries and all societal sectors its use cases are extremely varied. Therefore, its architectural implementations are varied as well.  That variability, however, lies underneath a common technology “stack” consisting of these five elements:

  • Devices
  • Networks and Infrastructure
  • Data Analytics
  • Processes
  • Security

Devices

Devices are the actual connected “things” in the IoT.  These typically are sensors and actuators.  Sensors will “sense” and report on the environment they are in, such as temperature, movement, wind or any number of other measurables depending on their function.  A single complex machine in manufacturing might have hundreds of sensors.  Actuators will“act” in some way.  For example, a temperature regulating system might automatically turn on heating or cooling based on temperature readings from sensors.

Networks and Infrastructure

This layer is essentially all the stuff that allows us to communicate and interact with the devices. We need the devices to provide data, and we may need the devices to do things.  This requires a communications network (most likely wireless) and some sort of data transport and storage architecture. 

Data Analytics

Internet of Things rides on data.  Data analytics turns data into actionable information.  Devices collect and transmit data so that they can be put through some sort of computation and/or analysis.  Again, the nature of this data analysis will vary greatly depending on the specific IoT use case.

We can break down IoT data analytics into four categories:  Descriptive; Diagnostic; Predictive; and Prescriptive.

Descriptive analytics provides the what, when and where.  Diagnostic analytics provides the why.  Predictive analytics says what will happen next.  And prescriptive analytics helps determine what should be done next. Not all IoT solutions will use all four of these categories.  Again, it depends on the use case.

Processes

Ultimately, IoT has zero value unless it leads to some kind of process or action.  This is where the real-world benefits of IoT reside.  For example, a predictive maintenance manufacturing process might be to dynamically switch to a redundant machine to allow time for maintenance without causing down time, thereby cutting plant costs. 

Or,a wearable activity monitor might detect an abnormal movement pattern of its owner and automatically initiate a call to 911 that could save their life. 

These are examples of IoT processes that perform the actual benefits of the IoT solution.  These processes depend on the devices for measurement, the network and technology infrastructure to get the data from the devices to a place of storage and computation, and dynamic data analytics to determine the appropriate process.

Security

Although described here as the fifth layer of the IoT technology stack, security is a little different in that it underlies all of the other four processes.  The technical nature and methods of IoT security are for another article.  However, it’s clear that cyber security is increasingly critical the more our world becomes connected and the more we become dependent on connected processes in our daily lives.  One significant challenge is how to manage security with real-time IoT applications since there may be no time to investigate a security situation.  This scenario may require machine learning solutions to allow the security algorithms to keep pace with potential cyber attacks.

 Who Makes All This Work?

Now that we know the basics of how IoT works, who actually does this stuff?  Well, we can generally break this down into four major players:

Device Makers

Let’s be reminded that we are talking about making “things” connected to the internet, so we are dealing with a massive and ever-growing list of things that will either be IoT devices or will have an IoT sensor designed within them.  So, device makers include a very large number of organizations, from parts manufacturers for engines to health care equipment suppliers, to an explosion of consumer products.

Communication Networks

All that data that the billions of IoT sensors will be collecting and receiving needs to be transported on some kind of communication network.  The type of network used will depend on each individual IoT use case.  The traditional wireless network operators, like Verizon, will certainly carry much of this traffic.  But, other types of networks will be in the mix as well.  This will range from very short-range communication like Bluetooth and ZigBee, to the global range provided by satellite networks and everything in between. 

The need for Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWAN) for many IoT applications is creating a new industry for wireless networks and solutions that forego the unneeded high data speeds and low latency for the benefits of low cost, long range, long battery life sensors. 

Consider a large array of river gauge sensors that monitor water levels, quality and temperatures over hundreds of miles of riverways.  For this you need low-cost sensors with very long battery life and long range communication.  But because the sensors are only sending bursts of basic information there is no need for high data speed or low latency.  Putting this on a 4G or 5Gwireless network is overkill and cost-prohibitive.

But, other IoT solutions, like those related to virtual/augmented reality or autonomous transportation, absolutely require ultra-high-speed data and low latency.

IoT Platforms

IoT platforms are offered by software companies to implement and manage the IoT solution and infrastructure.  The function of platforms varies greatly, again, depending on the specific IoT use case.  But, typically, they will be involved in connectivity management, device life cycle management, data management and analytics, and application development.

Data Management Providers

 platform provider may provide the logistics of data management and analytics,many IoT use cases will require the assistance of specialized big data analytics providers who can turn massive data inputs into meaningful learnings and processes.

Remember the Wilderness

IoT solutions are already beginning to bring significant benefits to numerous segments of society.  In many ways, IoT will enrich our lives.  A very large percentage of IoT solutions will be in health care and they have the potential to simultaneously bring down costs, improve the quality and accuracy of care, and save many lives.  The role of IoT in autonomous transportation also has the potential for enormous societal benefit over the next couple of decades.  Tens of thousands of Americans die every year on our highways. Autonomous transportation has the potential to eventually bring this number to nearly zero.

Still, there is a trade-off.  IoT drastically increases our dependence on connected technology.  And,the further we separate ourselves from nature, the farther and harder we will fall should things come apart at the seams. 

It will be increasingly vital that we make sure to keep one foot in nature.  Disconnect from all the connected “things” and get out into the trees. Smell the flowers.  Walk in that clear stream.  Touch the rocks.  Climb the mountains.  Understand that, as relentless as our drive for technological advancement is, we will always ultimately depend on nature and natural things for our mental and physical well-being, and for our long-term survival.

You Are Transhuman Already

In 1945 an American military airplane crashed in the jungle of Papua New Guinea.  Three of the passengers, including one woman, survived the crash.  Deep in the jungle, the three Americans soon came into contact with a native tribe.  The savages, as they called them, moved naked through the forest in packs and yipped like wild dogs.  Bones pierced their noses.  These were stone-age humans, previously unknown and uncontacted by the modern world.

The tribal people reacted to the Americans as if they were supernatural creatures, not because of the color of their complexion or the texture of their hair, but because of their bizarre “removable skin.”  It was their clothes. 

These naked tribal people had no concept, nothing relatable in their imagination, for these types of materials.  To the natives, the Americans seemed unhuman, maybe gods, or maybe ghosts, depending on their own mythology.

On the morning of March 1st, 2011, I was just an ordinary young man when I walked into an ordinary two-story office building in a Denver suburb.  The waiting room was a calm and comforting place.  An electric water fountain created the soothing sound of trickling water.  Framed images of natural serenity adorned the walls.

The receptionist was also very calm and comforting.  She welcomed me with a soft and reassuring voice and a very pleasant hand shake.  Then she gave me a magic pill, a valium, to calm my mind and make me even more comfortable before leading me into a small dark room with a very comfortable reclining chair.

I sank into that chair while a machine descended from above and sliced off a piece of each of my eyeballs. 

In a matter of minutes, not only was my near-sightedness and astigmatism corrected, I ended up with “better than perfect” 20/15 vision.  I could now see slightly better than is naturally possible in a human being.  Through laser eye surgery I had become a transhuman.  I was bio-technologically improved.

But, was this really my first “biological enhancement?” Perhaps I had already become a transhuman years earlier when I received my first tooth filling.   Or, maybe it was earlier still, as a newborn baby, when a doctor injected magic serums into my body and thereby protected me from polio.  And measles.

Of course, I don’t think of myself as some sort of cyborg or transhuman.  Neither did those American soldiers trapped in the jungle in 1945.  But, from the perspective of an original “savage” human, we would indeed seem to be something else.  We would seem human-like, but human-enhanced.

The idea of transhumanism is all the buzz among today’s futurists.  I recently wrote an article about how to prepare our kids for their transhuman future, as if there will be a single point in time, maybe a few decades from now, when all humans become cyborgs overnight.

As we look to our technological future it’s easy to forget that, as a species, we embarked on our transhuman journey a very long time ago.  And, indeed, we are already quite far into this adventure.

At first the going was slow.  The official starting line is debatable, but let’s assume it began with the invention of agriculture somewhere between 10,000 and 23,000 BC depending on who you ask.  Now, this was a monumental leap in transhuman destiny.  This is when we first acquired a god-like capability.  We became the deliberate creators of mutant life forms, shaping and guiding the evolution of plant and animal species to meet our own needs and desires.

My dog, Codee the Corgi, looks nothing like anything in the wild.  He is a human-engineered mutant specimen, bred to be both functional as a cattle herder and adorable as a pet.  The Queen of England loves him.

Codee, my adorable mutant pet

The delicious yellow banana looks nothing like its tough, bitter-tasting, and shriveled ancestor.  Humans created the banana we know and love today, using simply the raw materials of nature to create something better to enhance our health, nutrition, culinary satisfaction, and mass production potential.

A few thousand years after the beginning of agriculture and animal breeding, some true geniuses figured out how to turn their thoughts into little symbols scratched into rock.  These were the first coders and they had invented the written language.

The vaporware of thought could now be visually represented, saved, replicated, and transported across not only territory (space) but time. 

Other humans in other locations and future times could then read and understand the thoughts of the original author—a person they need not have ever met.  They could then build on the original author’s ideas.

Written language was a quantum leap on our transhuman journey.  We had set forth the beginning of a continuous acceleration in the accumulation and sharing of knowledge.  This transformed human thought into an exponential trajectory of technological progress, each generation building on the knowledge of the last through the use and continued accumulation of the written record.

As time went on, we began to understand the stars.  We started to solve the mysteries of the human body.  And, eventually, we began to create machines.  The ocean-going vessel.  The printing press.  The steam engine.  We manipulated matter in all sorts of ways to take on new shapes, textures, and functions.  Totally new human-made substances, like plastic, infiltrated our world.  Things were rapidly accelerating, and humans became increasingly dependent on their own inventions like mechanized personal transportation, the harnessing of electricity, and the channeling of radio waves.  We created the Turing Machine.  And, then the Internet.  This trajectory continues to accelerate exponentially.

All of this stuff has already created a human-shaped world in which magic is commonplace.

Imagine if the stone-age people in Papua New Guinea suddenly found themselves in the middle of New York City in 2018.  Never mind the really magical stuff around them for now.  Just start with cement.  Here is a man-made material that gives us the ability to create and shape the very rock of Earth.  It is a material that we no longer even wonder about—so primitive and low-tech—and, yet, it would be so totally otherworldly to stone-age man.

Then show the tribe a lightbulb.  Like a mini-sun, the lightbulb turns night into day practically whenever and wherever we want.  Put stone-age man into an automobile and let him be transported through the world at frightening speed, seemingly floating within a strange enclosure made of materials he’s never seen nor fathomed.  Play a radio and turn on a television set and let him hear voices out of thin air and see moving images dance across a glossy flat rock.  Try to explain the internet to him.  Impossible.

One of the fears of our continued trajectory further into a state of transhumanism is that we will lose our humanity.  What does it mean to be human in a transhuman world?  But, all of those examples above from our past and present represent some level of human technological augmentation that has become integral to every day modern life.  And, yet few would seriously argue that we have lost our humanity, that we are somehow no longer human.

We forget how far we have already separated ourselves from a savage existence and how much we already depend on the manipulation of both nature and ourselves.  Have we maintained our humanity thus far?

Do we still feel love and pain and joy?  Do we still exercise free will?  Do we still smell the flowers and drink the water?  Do we still wonder about the mystery when we look out over the ocean and up to the stars?

Yes, we do.  Perhaps, this can give us some solace as we continue on our journey further into a technological world.  Perhaps, somehow, all along that path, our humanity will persist as we relentlessly find ways to transform our world and ourselves through technology.  Our humanity will persist as we 3D-print replacement organs and bones.  As we augment human thought with machine intelligence.  As we possibly extend human lifespan through the reversal of aging.

Let’s assume that humanity can continue its current technological trajectory for another 200 years (some would say that’s a very bold assumption).  If we were to be transported to the year 2218, what would it be like?  It would be at least as bizarre and unfathomable to us as our present world would be to a stone-age human.  But, it would be completely normal to the 2218 human.  I believe the technologically augmented humans of 2218, like us today, will still be human.  They will still drink the water and gaze upon the blue ocean with wonder.

Cable is the New Wireless. And Wireless is the New Broadband

Cable has finally done it.  After decades of periodic failed attempts at a wireless service business, big cable appears to have cracked the wireless code.  Comcast has already passed one million wireless subscribers (1).  Charter, who followed the Comcast playbook and launched a wireless service this summer, expects 650,000 wireless subscribers after one year (2).  Both used Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) models with Verizon as the Mobile Network Operator (MNO) partner.  Altice expects to launch their own wireless service (3) next year (2019) as a Sprint MVNO.  Of Cable’s big four it would seem that Cox Communications is the outlier, with no stated plans for their own MVNO launch.  However, Cox is the only one participating in the millimeter wave (5) spectrum auctions this year, so we can expect that they will also be in the wireless mix at some point.

Cable’s Wireless Vision

Now that cable has found a foothold in wireless where do they go from here?  A short-term perspective might suggest that this is simply about adding more customers and keeping the ones they have.  While those are certainly near-term objectives, their long-term vision for wireless is much more strategic.

A combination of emerging technologies, new market dynamics, and updated regulatory approaches to spectrum allocation are simultaneously aligning.  This is providing the cable industry with an opportunity to not only succeed as wireless service providers but to potentially drive a new wireless evolution.

Today’s broadband internet and wireless consumers increasingly expect seamless transitions between transport technologies.  Data is data, whether we are sitting at home, working at the office, having coffee at the local café, or cruising down the highway to visit the in-laws.  While great strides have been made over the last decade or so to achieve this, there is much more to be done.  Leaders in both the cable and wireless industries understand this and they are willing to engage in a peculiar state of simultaneous competition and collaboration.

The importance of new strategies in wireless and broadband is enhanced by the Internet of Things.  IoT is now beginning to open up a world of opportunities for new business-to-business solutions made possible by all sorts of new connected devices.  All those devices must connect to some kind of network and the type of network they connect to will often depend on their use cases.

This all may seem a bit complicated, but top cable executives have not been shy about their long-term vision for wireless.  To put it all into perspective, we can break their vision down into the following four steps.

Step One – Massive Wi-Fi Deployment

Launching an MVNO wireless service is actually the second major step in Cable’s wireless transformation.  The first was the deployment of millions of Wi-Fi hotspots.  For years the Cable Wi-Fi Alliance (6), consisting of the big four U.S. cable providers, have collaborated to blanket their service areas with a mesh Wi-Fi network.  These hotspots now number over 20 million.  The map below illustrates the combined Cable Wi-Fi Alliance coverage.

The Cable WiFi Alliance National Hotspot Coverage Map (Source, Spectrum WiFi page)

Step Two – Sell a Wireless Service

As previously noted, Comcast and Charter have now launched a consumer wireless service using a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) model.  They both lease the wireless network from Verizon, but they provide their own device procurement and customer support infrastructure.  Altice will do the same with Sprint in 2019.  Now, along with the Wi-Fi footprint, they are adding direct wireless subscribers and learning how to run a wireless back office.

 Step Three – Tie it Together with CBRS Spectrum

The next phase is all about CBRS Spectrum (8) at 3.5 GHz which is a new range of radio spectrum being made available by the FCC through a new spectrum sharing model.  Crucially, this spectrum sharing model will enable neutral hosting (9).  Neutral hosting provides the ability for new types of entities, like large venue owners, to deploy their own private LTE networks.  Cable operators may deploy locally targeted LTE networks (on either 4G or 5G standards) using this spectrum.

Charter’s CEO Tom Rutledge articulated it this way: “Charter plans to use the 3.5 GHz band in conjunction with its Wi-Fi network to improve network performance and expand capacity to offer consumers a superior wireless service.”

CBRS may also open up a new partnership dynamic between cable operators and wireless providers.  A collaborative approach may lead to a scenario where the wireless operators “take the outdoors” and the cable operators “take the indoors” with a roaming arrangement linking the two.  The diagram below illustrates this possible strategy.

Image above provided by this white paper

Side note:  Since Cox Communications is participating in the millimeter wave auction but is not moving on an MVNO strategy, could they potentially be skipping the MVNO step to go straight to building out targeted 5G networks complementary to their Wi-Fi footprint and just utilize roaming partnerships for access to large area wireless networks?

Step Four – Small Cell to DOCSIS Integration

This is what Charter’s CEO Tom Rutledge has called their “6G Wireless” which is not the same as the wireless industry’s conceptual definitions of 6G, but compelling nonetheless.  Mr. Rutledge was quoted in Light Reading (10): “6G… is our pre-spec definition of the integration of small cell architecture using unlicensed and licensed spectrum working together interchangeably with our advanced DOCSIS roadmap to create high-capacity, low-latency product offerings.  We expect that over time our existing infrastructure will put us in a unique position to economically deploy new powerful products that benefit from small cell connectivity.”

Now, let’s consider the wireless network operator perspective.

Wireless to Sell Residential Broadband

Video cord cutting is so 2010.  The new cord cutting is all about residential broadband internet service, and the wireless providers are going after cable’s dominance in this domain.  Don’t take my word for it.  Verizon has already launched their first iteration of 5G Wireless (13) in four major cities, branded “5G Home.” Their website makes it clear that this service is all about the home.  They even implore their prospective customers to “cut the cord.  Go 5G Home.”

T-Mobile is also swinging for a big piece of residential broadband.  Should their merger with Sprint succeed, “New T-Mobile” (14) ambitiously expects to become the U.S.’s fourth largest residential internet service provider, reaching over 9 million fixed wireless broadband customers by 2024.

Wireless 5G is of course a much bigger deal than just a competitive threat to cable broadband.  The wireless industry has now entered the deployment phase for 5G.  We will see wireless networks transform to a 5G standard over the next few years with 5G mobile devices available at scale in 2020.  5G will open up huge opportunities across multiple industries and technological solutions, including robust smart city applications, advancements in autonomous cars, virtual and augmented reality and more.

The question of how 5G Wireless will change our world is for another article.  For now we can be sure that the entire competitive landscape of wireless and fixed broadband is shifting.  And, before long, your cable company may be your new wireless provider, and your wireless provider may provide your home internet service.

Up may be down and down may be up, but it’s never boring.

How to Prepare our Kids for their Transhuman Future – Brief

Transhumanism is a philosophy that “advocates for the transformation of the human condition by developing and making widely available sophisticated technologies to greatly enhance human intellect and physiology.”

Obviously, this has profound implications for the human condition: ethical, moral, religious, economic, political, environmental.  So, where does Transhumanism take us?  Optimists might believe that it will lead to a golden age of human achievement, prosperity, fulfillment and enjoyment. Pessimists might believe that, at best, we will lose our humanity and our freedoms to our AI overlord.

I choose to be neither an optimist nor a pessimist, but a pragmatist. I want to prepare myself and my young daughter for what’s to come so that we may successfully navigate, understand, and benefit from this future.

Perhaps the best thing we can do to prepare our kids and grandkids for transhumanist lives is to actively teach them how to apply unchanging core human values to every new situation they face.  Ageless values like respect and compassion will remain important (and may become more important). But less traditional values may gain importance.

Now is the time to think about it. Now is the time to make it a conscious part of our parenting strategy.

Click here for the full length version of this important article.

 

How to Prepare our Kids for their Transhuman Future

The Beginning of the Transhuman Age

In a recent report issued by Gartner and reported in Forbes, Gartner makes the following stunning claim:

“Over the next decade, humanity will begin its ‘transhuman’ era…”

Transhumanism is a philosophy that “advocates for the transformation of the human condition by developing and making widely available sophisticated technologies to greatly enhance human intellect and physiology.”

Obviously, this has profound implications for the human condition:  ethical, moral, religious, economic, political, environmental.  Many people may bristle at the idea of transhumanism, instinctively (and possibly correctly) perceiving this as the loss of our humanity.  Indeed, transhuman scholars point to a future when humans become “posthuman,” like a new species that harnesses technology to control and direct its own evolution.

Where Does This Lead?

Optimists might believe that transhumanism will lead to a golden age of human achievement, prosperity, fulfillment and enjoyment.  A world where technology has been successfully directed to solve our most significant problems like climate change, natural resource limitations, disease, and warfare.  Pessimists might believe that, at best, we will lose our humanity and our freedoms to our AI overlord.  It gets much darker from there.

I choose to be neither an optimist nor a pessimist, but a pragmatist.  I want to prepare myself and my daughter, who is currently seven, for what’s to come so that we may successfully navigate, understand, and benefit from this future.  Part of my approach to this has led to a personal philosophy of mine that I call the “nature-tech balance.”

However uncomfortable, frightening, or exciting transhumanism may sound to us, this genie has already left the bottle.  While transhumanism may be defined as a philosophy, it’s probably an inevitability because these technological advancements are driven by global economic competition and a perceived massive benefit to humanity.  Bioengineering, for example, may lead to designer babies, but it can also potentially cure cancer.  A brain-machine interface might be weaponized for warfare, but it will also cure paralysis and accelerate learning.  Not only will these technological advancements not be stopped, they will soon be accelerated by quantum computing and vastly faster and more sophisticated communication networks.

We may be able to anticipate some of the negative consequences, but we cannot possibly predict or understand them all.  The current side effects of social media alone have left governments and the corporations running these platforms (like Facebook and Twitter) reeling as social media has inadvertently streamlined revolutionary uprisings, government repression, and geopolitical cyber warfare.  Already, technological advancement seems to be outpacing the ability of many humans to comprehend what is happening in their world.  For many there is a sense of losing connection to how things work and what things mean.

Those of us who are currently in the middle of our adult lives will experience some of the beginnings of this new human condition.  But our children and grandkids may become the first of the true “posthumans.”

If you’re not convinced, consider the profound differences in human life between 1918 and 2018.  Then consider that the next 100 years will bring substantially more rapid technological change than the previous century.  We simply cannot know or predict what life will be like in the year 2118.  Also consider that, because of many of the expected technological advancements of the next century, our kids and grandkids may live much longer lives.  We must assume that many, if not most, of our kids may live well into the 22nd century.

The combination of exponentially advancing technology and lengthening human life span creates a compounding effect on each individual life.  This could create a self-reinforcing cycle:  Relentlessly accelerating technological advancement may provide our children and/or grandchildren with opportunities to choose to extend their lives.  Once they choose to do so, increasingly sophisticated technological breakthroughs will present them with additional life-extending options.  The cycle would then continue.  Could it be that our kids, or our grandkids, will face the moral question of whether or not to choose a state of immortality?  It sounds outlandish but it’s really not out of the realm of possibility.  As a parent I find that to be unnerving if not frightening.

If our kids and grandkids are going to be the guinea pigs of a new posthuman condition as they lead humanity into the 22nd century, how do we prepare them for their future life if we cannot accurately predict the societal changes to come?  After all, we are the ones who will be foisting this new kind of life upon our innocent kids and grandkids.  We have a responsibility to understand how to prepare them for living and thriving in it.

How do we Prepare Our Kids for What we Can’t Predict?

In this blog post from AI Theology there are some good insights into some of the specific skills that our kids should focus on, like coding.  But it also touches on the importance of disciplines like philosophy and theology to prepare our kids for one specific question: “What does it mean to be human in an AI world?” That may be the central moral question of the next century, and it has less to do with specific technical skills than it does with moral values.

I think the best thing we can do to prepare our kids and grandkids for transhumanist lives is to actively teach them how to apply unchanging core human values to every new situation they face.  Core values may vary slightly by culture, but most of them are remarkably universal and timeless.  What is changing is the complexity and variability of the situations our kids will have to apply these values against. Parents today, and increasingly in the future, will need to teach and reinforce core values more actively.  Call it situational value-based learning.

If we can actively teach situational values as technology continues to accelerate, we will be training our kids to be adaptable to a technological world that advances beyond their ability to directly comprehend.  By doing this we will also increase the likelihood that our kids will achieve the optimists’ vision of a transhuman world.

Ageless values like respect and compassion will remain important (and may become more important).  But less traditional values may gain importance.  Critical thinking, for example, has always been a very valuable life skill, but I think it should now be considered a moral obligation.  Our kids are going to have to learn how to be masters at distinguishing between what’s real and what’s fake, between information that has integrity and sophisticated propaganda.

Historically, humans do not have a great track record for this kind of critical thinking and the current trajectory is not positive.  As communication platforms are increasingly putting us into informational bubbles, people are succumbing to echo chambers that block them off from opposing perspectives.  This is increasing political and social tribalism and may be contributing to a new rise in political authoritarianism.  This will only get worse before it gets better and making it better will require our childrens’ generation to become the best critical thinkers in history.

Another value that I think will become essential is what I call the nature-tech balance, which I wrote about here.  We are already perceiving our detachment from nature.  When we get out into the wilderness we often speak of “unplugging” from life or “reconnecting” to nature.  These word choices are not coincidental.  Having a connection with the real natural world is absolutely a human need.  Paradoxically, as technology distances us from our direct day-to-day dependence on nature, we increasingly crave nature for psychological well-being.  We know this instinctively.  We’ve also proven this scientifically–there is a clear link between mental well-being and immersion in nature.

In a transhuman world staying connected with nature will become a conscious moral obligation.  Keeping a healthy balance between nature and technology means that we should keep one “foot” in the technological world and the other “foot” firmly planted in the wilderness.  I will be teaching this value actively to my daughter.  Both “feet” are equally important to her overall equilibrium.  It would be a mistake for her to shun the technological world.  She must live in it and learn how to thrive in it.  But, keeping the other foot grounded in nature will allow her to keep everything in perspective.  It will keep her tethered to her origins.  It will keep her humble.  And it will feed her spiritual soul in a way that technology will never be able to match.

Conclusion

Much of this article may seem like far fetched science fiction.  But I contend that this is a very practical perspective.  Consider that just in the last couple of decades the following technologies have transitioned from the mostly futuristic conceptual state to becoming part of our everyday language and lives:

  • Artificial Intelligence—now part of everyday conversation, early iterations of AI are already being productized.
  • Virtual and Augmented Reality—go to your local Best Buy to check out their selection of VR headsets. It won’t be long before we will laugh at how primitive they looked in the year 2018.  And augmented reality is now being implemented in manufacturing operations among other things.
  • Autonomous Vehicles—cars that drive themselves have been on the road as test vehicles for years. Some self-driving features are already being included in today’s mass-produced cars and more of these features will gradually infiltrate our cars over the next couple of decades until cars really do drive themselves most of the time.
  • Quantum Computing—will exponentially increase mainstream computing power, providing the engine to accelerate advances in AI, VR and other technologies.
  • 5G and 6G Wireless Networks—will drastically increase wireless data speed and capacity while simultaneously reducing latency. 5G has entered the deployment phase.  Give it just 2-5 more years for ubiquitous 5G network coverage and device compatibility, and about 10 years for 6G to reach the start of its deployment phase.
  • Gene Editing—look up CRISPR.

The technologies above, and others, are rapidly developing and resulting in real-world applications today, in 2018.  But the breathtaking advancements we are seeing today will seem antique to our kids in 50 years.  Technological advancement will continue to accelerate at or near exponential rates.  It would be foolish to assume that concepts that sound like science fiction today, like significant life extension, consumer space travel, human-like artificial intelligence, and indeed transhumanism, will not be experienced in the lifetimes of our kids (and may even be experienced in ours).  It is our responsibility as parents to think about how to prepare our children to not only cope with, but thrive in, their transhuman futures.

Now is the time to think about it.  Now is the time to make it a conscious part of our parenting strategy.

The Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout and Deep Evolutionary Time

There is a place high in the Rockies in Wyoming where waters part. Two-Ocean Pass is a national landmark. Here, a small stream called North Two Ocean Creak splits into two waterways on the Continental Divide. The waters of one branch, Pacific Creek, are destined for the Pacific Ocean. The other, Altantic Creek, for the Atlantic Ocean.

This geographic peculiarity, called a distributary (the opposite of a tributary), probably allowed the ancestors of today’s Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout to spread into waters on both sides of the Continental Divide. Long ago a few enterprising young trout explored up what we now call Pacific Creek and somehow ended up on the other side of the hill, in Atlantic Creek. From there they reproduced and a new species was propagated into a new territory.

It is the peculiarities of nature that enable the “butterfly effect” in deep evolutionary time. A landslide changes the course of a creek drainage and isolates a population. Over many thousands of years that population evolves into a distinct sub-species of the original. Two ponds separated by a few feet of flat mud. A fish with extra strong fins manages to flipper its way across that mud into the other pond. Its mutant DNA is passed down to its offspring, and a few million years down the road, the fins morph into legs and the gills turn to lungs.

We can put a number on an immense time scale and claim to understand it. But we as humans cannot actually comprehend the immensity of deep evolutionary time. We try. We do visual exercises where we draw time out on a road. Where a mile of roadway represents the life of Earth, at 4.6 billion years, one million years on that scale is about one foot. Recorded human history (5,000 years) is about one millimeter of that one-mile track.

These visualizations are interesting, but they still don’t really change our brains to perceive a million years of time or more. I hold a rock in my hand and say to my second-grade daughter, “this rock right here might be 500 MILLION years old! Can you believe that?” She seems interested and curious, but she has no personal point of reference to relate, and neither do I.

The trout is a species that seems to easily morph into subspecies based on its environment. Isolated populations living in waterways with light-colored bottoms may evolve lighter colors and fewer spots. Natural selection favors the slightest variation in color between individual trout—the lighter ones ever so slightly more likely to survive predation and pass on their genes.

Humans are in the process of replacing natural evolution with artificial evolution. Gene editing, artificial intelligence, and augmented reality may be the more obvious affronts to nature’s designs. But, what about cars, genetically modified foods (which is almost all food modern humans consume), and medicines that prevent otherwise natural causes of death? Will our evolutionary path be technological? And, if so, what will be our connection to nature as our species increasingly becomes one of human design?

 

Exponential Technology and the Nature-Tech Balance

9-13-18 – DSG

Moore’s Law contends that technological computing power doubles about every 18 months.  The theory was first established by Gordon Moore in 1965 when he observed that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles about every year.  Although it was later revised to 18 months Moore’s Law has been remarkably consistent.

Consider the Cray-2 supercomputer released in 1985 (nicknamed “bubbles” for its innovative liquid cooling system).  The Cray-2 required a large room to house it and cost many millions of dollars.  By comparison the iPhone 5 (already an antiquated device) has 2.7 times the processing power of the Cray-2, fits in your palm, weighs a few ounces and, when new, cost just a few hundred dollars.

So, where does this take us?  Many so-called “futurists” like Ray Kurzweil, contend that this exponential trend will continue into perpetuity until we reach what they call “The Singularity.” The Singularity will happen, they say, when technological cognitive ability surpasses the human brain.  If this occurs, what may happen next is runaway technological advancement self-perpetuated by artificial intelligence that quickly moves beyond human comprehension and then continues to accelerate at exponential rates.

That prospect, of course, raises all kinds of questions.  The scariness factor of it depends on how you look at it.  On the one hand, it could be the catalyst that allows the human race to finally achieve its glorious destiny: No more wars; quick solutions to global climate change; everlasting life in perpetual bliss; opportunities for fulfillment that cannot even be imagined today.  On the other hand, it could also mean the total extinction of our species as we essentially become absorbed or consumed by the new super-intelligent machines that we have no ability to control or even understand.

While this may still be in the science fiction realm today, many technology gurus are taking it quite seriously.  In 2017 Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, warned of an existential threat to human existence posed by artificial intelligence.

There are also many skeptics, including highly credible tech gurus such as Paul Allen of Microsoft fame.  However, even the skeptics don’t necessarily suggest that The Singularity won’t happen, they just believe it will take a much longer period of time to get there.  Kurzweil predicts the singularity will occur in 2045 (in most of our lifetimes!) while others suggest that it will take hundreds of years.  So, it’s just a matter of time!

How does this relate to nature?  I believe the reason people today find such a connection to nature is because our daily lives are becoming more and more disconnected from nature, and this has everything to do with technology.  When people get out into the wilderness they often use terms like “reconnecting” with the wild or “unplugging” from the world.

This is no coincidence.  In the days of Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, environmental visionaries like them were eccentrics.  Those guys were way ahead of their time.  They had some sort of enhanced connection to the natural world that was uncommon then.  Most people in those days did not have a concept for “wilderness” as having its own intrinsic value.  The wilderness was a forbidding and unwelcoming place that was to be exploited and controlled by man.  The ideal was a cultivated landscape shaped by the plow and industry.

These days, while there are still those who have little appreciation for, or interest in, the wilderness, most people seem to appreciate natural places for what they are—natural.  Why has this changed?  I believe it’s partly because industry and technology have worked to detach humans from nature, and by doing so, humans are becoming increasingly nostalgic for natural experiences and immersion into nature.

I work in a technology field and I’m passionate about it.  Technology has provided humanity with great solutions to massive problems.  It has directly contributed to reductions in global hunger and infectious diseases, increases in life span, improvements in quality of life and much more.  But, I’m also keenly aware that technology increasingly separates us from nature and that creates a psychological and sociological conflict.  This conflict will only become more pronounced as technology marches on.

My personal philosophy for dealing with this is what I call nature-tech balance.  I have a professional “foot” and a nature “foot.” I keep one foot (my professional one) in the technology world.  Things are changing incredibly fast, and linking my career to leading technological trends helps ensure that, as these things continue to change our lives in ways we can’t always predict, I will be less likely to be left behind and bewildered by technological innovation.  My other foot (my nature one) is firmly planted in the natural world.  I make sure to “unplug” and step into the wilderness where my smartphone is no longer connected to the web, I can’t read my email, and I can’t talk to Alexa.

I know when I’m in the wilderness that I’m ultimately human and my survival depends on human behavior and traits.  How do I get to my destination one step at a time?  How do I keep warm and dry?  How do I avoid falling off a cliff?  How do I avoid getting mauled by a bear?  And, while I’m doing all this I stop to take in the view.  That beautiful red rock cliff face has been warmed by a hundred million sunrises and will be lit by a hundred million more. That Bristlecone Pine over there is real, and it was a sapling in the days of the Roman Empire.  Contemplation of nature, detached from technology, will keep us grounded and humble.  It will remind us of our origins and will restore our mental equilibrium.

When technological advancement surpasses our ability to comprehend what is happening, those who keep one foot in technology and one foot in nature will be the most likely to be able to cope if things go sour, and thrive if things go well.  Now, it’s time for me to plan my next adventure into the woods.