Tracking, hacking, uploading: tomorrow for good?

Dear Futurists,

1.) Apps that track: what should we expect? TOMORROW (Sat 9th May)

London Futurists is trying something different tomorrow (Saturday 9th May).

Rather than having a formal panel discussing topics in front of a virtual audience – the format of our recent Crowdcast events – we’re aiming on this occasion for a wider discussion in which more voices can take part.

The subject of the conversation is something that’s been in the news a lot in the last few days: the ways in which various mobile apps might assist society to track infections of Covid-19 – and to reduce its rate of spread.

A number of questions have been tabled for discussion:

  • How well can we expect mobile tracking applications to help manage pandemics?
  • What are the likely limitations of these applications? What are their likely strengths?
  • How do different solutions being developed and deployed around the world compare?
  • From what angles should these applications be assessed? Trust? Privacy? Effectiveness?
  • How do centralised and decentralised applications differ?
  • What other changes, at societal and/or individual levels, might be needed to make these applications more successful?
  • What risks are posed by such apps potentially increasing the power of big tech, big government, and big society? What advantages might come from such increases in power?
  • What are the implications for the management of the present pandemic, and for management of public health in the future?

The event will start, at 4pm BST, with a number of short sets of scene-setting remarks. For example, I’ll be having a brief discussion with Eva Pascoe, Chair of Cybersalon.org and co-founder of Cyberia, the UK’s first internet cafe. Eva has many years of experience reviewing the potential of apps that track footfall in retail settings. It’s worth reading her recent article “Track and trace or duck and dive – Covid19 surveillance apps”.

There’s still scope for one or two others to be added to the list of people making opening remarks. Let me know if you have something specific you’d like to say.

Part of the event will include the experiment of splitting the larger gathering into a number of smaller “breakout” discussions that run in parallel. The idea here is to try to replicate part of the informal social gathering aspects of physical London Futurists events. The breakouts – which will be assigned randomly – will be set a couple of homework questions to work on for 20 minutes, before the larger group reconvenes to share results and to take the discussion further forwards.

To make use of the breakout discussion functionality we’ll be reverting to Zoom for this event. The link to register is on the meetup page. There’s no charge to register or to join the event this time round.

It will also be interesting to compare the performance of Zoom, tomorrow, with the Crowdcast software we’ve been using recently. I was sorry to hear that a small number of you evidently had some bad experience with the Crowdcast video streaming last time around.

2.) Hacking Darwin? Hacking the Code of Life? Sat 16th May

Moving on from hacking software for our mobile phones, to help improve the management of our health (see previous news item), what about hacking the code of life, that is, the genes that play a central role in our biology?

Perhaps modifying our biology offers better long-term hopes for making us more resilient against future pandemics?

In the last few days, I’ve been reading a couple of different books on related topics:

Both books are fascinating – and easy to read. It’s great news that both Jamie and Nessa have agreed to join a London Futurists Crowdcast next Saturday, 16th May. We’ll also be joined by Professor Joyce Harper of UCL,  who has worked in the fields of fertility, genetics, reproductive health and women’s health for over 30 years.

It should be a super event. Attendees will have the chance to ask questions in real time, and to vote on which questions should receive priority attention from the speakers. For more details of the event, see here.

3.) Thoughts on “Upload” (on Amazon Prime)

In 2033, people can be “uploaded” into virtual reality hotels run by six tech firms. Cash-strapped Nora lives in Brooklyn and works customer service for the luxurious “Lakeview” digital afterlife. When L.A. party-boy/coder Nathan’s self drive car crashes, his high-maintenance girlfriend uploads him permanently into Nora’s VR world.

That’s the description of the series “Upload” which appeared on Amazon Prime on 1st May. There are ten episodes in the first series, lasting about 30 minutes each.

It’s not the world’s greatest drama. Some parts are, well, a bit silly and stereotyped.

But it’s easy watching, and the story keeps zipping along with what were (for me) unexpected twists and turns. Despite some initial misgivings, I got to like various characters once their personalities had a chance to shine through.

The reason I’m mentioning Upload, of course, is because of the futurist content it includes. It’s not just self-driving cars, shared virtual reality experiences, and the routine 3D printing of food. It’s not just the occasional references to cryonics. It’s the possibility of extracting someone’s memory and consciousness from their physical body, as they near death, and uploading them as a first-class citizen inside a variety of afterlife domains. And it’s about how human relationships are transformed by this possibility.

Part of the drama revolves around the limitations of the technology involved – when aspects of it go wrong, and when some functionality is restricted to customers who have made larger financial commitments.

Here’s a preview trailer that gives a good flavour of some of the content

Public discussions of futurism are likely to increasingly include references to Upload. That’s not the only similarity between Upload and Black Mirror. But on the whole, Upload is less abrasive, and seems to offer more hope for the future (despite significant glitches en route).

Without giving anyway too much about how the series ends, I can pass on the information that several matters are left unresolved. Apparently a second series has been planned – but filming is on hold during the lockdown.

4.) Tomorrow For Good? French language online event, Sat 6th June

Tracking. Hacking. Uploads. And that’s just scratching the surface of future technological possibilities.

But will such technology build a tomorrow that is better than today?

If you are comfortable with the French language, I recommend taking a look at https://www.tomorrowforgood.org/, which describes an online event taking place on Saturday 6th June.

Here’s a brief extract from the site:

Le Tomorrow for Good, c’est la rencontre pionnière, le 6 juin en live sur internet, pour répondre tous ensemble à l’importante question

Que souhaitons-nous pour demain ?

  • De nombreux thèmes impactants (santé, impact & résilience, nouvelles technologies, alimentation, villes, pouvoir citoyen…)
  • Deux live (Youtube & Facebook) avec possibilité de poser directement des questions
  • Création de manifestes pour graver dans le marbre les idées échangées
  • Un espace virtuel ouvert pour une nouvelle manière d’échanger
  • Des engagements (parité dans les débats, qualité du débat, transparence budgétaire)

For more details about the event and its organisers, see here.

5.) Edinburgh Futurists

From France to Scotland…

Anyone who feels a connection with Edinburgh is encouraged to check out the Edinburgh Futurists meetup.

It’s held a number of events this year – one physical one (before the lockdown) and the remainder virtual. Subjects discussed have included:

  • The future of work
  • The future of housing
  • The future of inequality
  • The future of the intangible economy
  • Alien life and the future.

I claim three personal connections with Edinburgh: some of my ancestors lived there, a few generations back. I lived there myself for three months in long-ago 1977. And I’ll be the guest speaker at the Edinburgh Futurists event on Tuesday 19th May, which will be a one hour discussion on the pros and cons of the case for the abolition of aging.

As I said, if you can count yourself a friend or admirer of Edinburgh, you’re welcome to sign up for that meetup. I look forward to speaking to some of you on the 19th!

6.) The Pandemic Challenge – an update

At the end of March, this newsletter shared news of the Pandemic Challenge, organised by Mike Halsall and others from the Singularity University network:

The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, the cause of COVID-19 disease, threatens all our lives and the global economy.

Scientists are unsure as to how long the virus will remain a threat to us, and until a vaccine or a cure is found we will be forced to live and work in a pandemic economy. Your ideas could help save lives, and to live better lives during this difficult time.

Step up to the Challenge!

We are developing relationships with academia and corporate partners to provide incentives to people with big ideas to abate the pandemic.

The first phase of the Challenge has now completed, with details of the top 5 ideas submitted available here (PDF).

The top prize was awarded to Dorothea Koh of Singapore, for Bot MD:

Bot MD is the “Google Assistant” for busy healthcare professionals. The A.I. can be quickly trained on any hospital or clinical content to instantly answer doctor and frontline medical staff questions. Clinical content can come from any authoritative source such as hospitals, medical associations or even the local Ministry of Health.

With our partner hospitals and governments, we train Bot MD on hospital or Ministry of Health specific content such the latest COVID-19 protocols or operational directives or even pandemic team call rosters. Whenever clinical staff need an answer, they can just simply type a query to the Bot and it will instantly respond with the right answer.

Bot MD was founded by Dorothea Koh (CEO) and Yanchuan Sim (CTO) who both have a passion for impacting healthcare in large emerging markets in scalable ways. Dorothea has over 11+ years of operational experience in the healthcare industry having worked for several Fortune 500 companies like Baxter and Medtronic across multiple geographies like China, India, Indonesia and the Philippines. Yanchuan spent over 10+ years in Machine Learning and Natural Language Processing (NLP). The NLP technology behind Bot MD was built entirely from scratch by the team.

Ranked first, and awarded one place at Singularity University’s Executive Programme

Other submissions ranked in the top five came from:

  • Trevor Costello, UK, for Aqua 21
  • Asiye Karakullukçu, Turkey/ UK, for AKSense
  • Renan Serrano, Brazil/ US, for Visto Bio
  • Alberto Rizzoli, Italy/ Sweden/ UK, for V7 Labs

But the Challenge is far from over:

This time we are purely seeking ideas. We can help you match these with corporates and venture capitalists where they make sense. We can respond to you 24/7.

Deadline for ideas: Your ideas will be welcome, and will keep this open until 31st December 2020.

7.) Ideas for forthcoming events

I’ll end by briefly mentioning some potential forthcoming London Futurists events, which are still at early stages in planning:

  1. What works of fiction are good for the future?
  2. Which apps and services can enhance emotional wellbeing, here and now?
  3. The future of spatial computing and immersive virtual events?
  4. The future of international institutions: a better design for better global relationships?
  5. Measurements for a healthier society: replacements for the GDP?
  6. Making decisions in the face of radical uncertainty?
  7. Options for transitioning into a post-work society?
  8. Defusing the race towards ever more powerful autonomous weaponry?
  9. Pathways to beneficial general artificial intelligence?

Regarding meeting times, every timeslot has its drawbacks. Some people seem to like the 4pm BST slot on Saturdays, but it’s not good for everyone. I’m considering experimenting with an 8pm start time.

Some of the ideas listed above, by the way, arose at the end of last Saturday’s London Futurists discussion. In case you haven’t seen it yet, here’s a copy of the recording.

// David W. Wood
Chair, London Futurists

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