Beyond wishful thinking

Dear Futurists,

We’ve grown used to the dramatic contributions made by startups toward building a better world.

The story is familiar. A small group of passionate people cluster together, driven by a conviction that they have something special to offer humanity. By a mix of heroism and smarts, they take clever advantage of breakthroughs in science and technology. They usually have to fight off some reversals along the way, and may even crash and burn into bankruptcy. But enough of them push through their setbacks and become household names. In the process, they become outstandingly wealthy, bring huge financial rewards to their investors, and provide goods or services that customers value highly.

Examples in recent decades include:

  • Genentech, Gilead Sciences, and Celgene, in the field of biotech
  • Intel, ARM, and Qualcomm, in the field of semiconductors
  • Apple, Dell, and Cisco, in the field of computer hardware
  • Microsoft, Amazon, and Google, in the field of software

Is it reasonable to expect this pattern to continue? Is it likely that new startups, following similar methods of operation, will use new generations of technological breakthrough to improve the world again and again, delighting investors and customers alike?

Actually, there are reasons to think things will be more complicated. Read on for the details.

1.) A troubled future for startups and innovation? Sat 18th July

The troubled future of startups

The main speaker at the London Futurists webinar tomorrow, Saturday 18th July, is Professor Jeffrey Funk. Jeffrey highlights data showing that startups founded since 2000 have fared poorly compared with those from earlier decades. Despite lots of media excitement over “unicorns”, such companies generally underperform the Nasdaq average. Whatever else these companies are doing, they’re failing to deliver significant improvements in productivity.

Indeed, Jeffrey points to evidence that, in the UK, the 2010s saw the lowest average per annum increase in productivity growth (just 0.3% per annum) since the early 1800s.

What’s going on? Is productivity being measured in the wrong way? Are startups delivering something different to society nowadays, that we should learn to value more highly? Or are there deeper issues impacting the application of innovation?

In his presentation, Jeffrey will argue that:

  • Technology breakthroughs that have long been anticipated have failed to materialise (although that fact has been obscured by unhelpful media hype)
  • Changes in standard operating modes in both corporations and academia are impeding genuine innovation
  • Too many startups are being misled by apparent market leaders whose prominence, in reality, is dependent on unsustainable subsidies.

Jeffrey will also offer practical suggestions for how society can revise and improve the management of innovation.

Jeffrey and I will be joined in this discussion by:

  • Gyanee Dewnarain, an independent consultant in innovation and strategy, who has previously held senior roles at Gartner, Orange Business Services, and Tizen
  • Miguel Marcos Martinez, a VP in IT at a major international bank, who has led innovative IT projects in the finance industry starting from the early days of the World Wide Web in the mid-90s and was a member of one of the first bank-funded venture fund for FinTech startups.

For more information about the event, and for links to register on Zoom, click here.

As the discussion proceeds, attendees will be welcome to raise questions and vote to prioritise questions raised by others.

2.) Beyond techno-solutionism: video recording

One challenge to building the better world many of us anticipate is, as just mentioned, that startups nowadays seem less successful than before in taking advantage of envisioned breakthroughs in science and technology.

Another challenge is that, sometimes, parts of society become too fixated on finding a technological solution to a social issue, when a non-technical solution could actually be preferable.

That was a prevailing theme in the London Futurists webinar discussion that took place on Monday, “Adventures at the Frontier of Birth, Food, Sex & Death”.

If you missed it, or if you’d like to watch parts again (because the conversation was full of provocative ideas), here’s a video of the event:

Many thanks to the panellists Jenny Kleeman, Rohit Talwar, and Gemma Milne for keeping the discussion moving onward and upward!

For a deeper dive into various themes covered in this video recording, I strongly recommend Jenny’s recent book, Sex Robots & Vegan Meat.

3.) Beyond the current system: anticipating the Elephant

To move beyond the confinements, distortions, irrationalities, and inequities of the current human condition, we’ll need progress in more than one field at the same time.

As just mentioned, sometimes the next step to take is non-technical. It could be a change in thinking patterns. An adjustment in power dynamics. A focus on usability design. Some time spent in nature. A new relationship with a wise mentor or partner. A change in the law. Agreement on new standards. An emphasis on points of view that have previously been suppressed. A commitment to different personal habits. An alliance of people who previously felt alienated from each other. Or so on.

But sometimes technology does provide the answer. Better technology can help in the provision of better healthcare, better education, better sustenance, better transport, better security, better entertainment, and lots more besides.

This multi-dimensional approach is sometimes called “seeing the elephant”. I was introduced to that phrase by the Alternative UK, a loose collection of individuals who share a core purpose. Here’s the description from the Alternative UK website:

We are a political platform, not a political party.

Our purpose is to catalyse a new politics that goes far beyond our current reality. We focus on engagement more than elections, on values over ideology, on futures that include, not exclude. We care about solutions, challenges – and great questions.

Beneath the democratic deficit lies an imagination deficit.

Through political laboratories, creative practice and sociable meet-ups we are launching a “friendly revolution”, where we support all citizens to engage deeply with the complex issues that face our society.

Alternative UK talk about “the elephant” as follows:

The new politics must serve a new socio-economic system, capable of transformation.

What is “the new system that makes the old one obsolete”?

There is every evidence that it has been forming for decades. How do we name it and make it visible as a choice?

The Elephant is an ongoing inquiry into these questions.

The title refers to the parable of the blind men and the elephant – where each one feels only a piece of the whole and has to communicate and cooperate with the others to make the animal appear.

But it also refers to the elephant in the room – the thing we cannot talk about. But if we did, so much more would be possible together.

London Futurists shares with Alternative UK the conviction that society must become better at talking about core aspects of the human condition which, on the whole, people would prefer not to talk about.

In support of this shared mission, I’ve been glad to have been involved with the Elephant process since an initial scoping meeting in December 2019.

Of course, the world has moved on a lot since December 2019, but the need for an improved discussion remains as vital as ever. The next step in that discussion is an online event happening on Tuesday, 21st July, where I will be the main speaker in a session of “The Elephant meets…”.

To find out more about that event, and to register to attend, see this Eventbrite page.

For some additional background on some of the topics likely to arise on Tuesday, here’s a link into the Alternative UK blog, “Our 21st July Elephant speaker, David Wood, has a new presentation: improve the future, by improving how you see it”.

4.) Beyond a two-phase view of AI

Here’s an important concrete example of the need for a better conversation about the future. Ideas about the future of AI tend to bifurcate into two types:

  1. Those that explore the opportunities and risks of today’s AI systems, as they might mature and grow in the years and decades ahead
  2. Those that look forward to a radically different sort of AI, known as AGI (for “Artificial General Intelligence”) in which software systems will match or exceed human cognitive abilities in every domain of thought.

However, this bifurcation omits the possibility that new types of AI will emerge in the next 5-10 years, which won’t yet meet the criteria of AGI, but which could cause as many changes in the power of AI as did the breakthroughs with deep neural networks that started around 8-10 years ago.

This possibility of evolved AI won’t simply be “more of the same” of today’s AI. It could introduce all sorts of explosive new risks and opportunities.

In a recent Fast Future seminar on “The future of AI”, I briefly outlined 12 ways in which the AI of 5-10 years time could be very different from today’s. The time allotted for this presentation was only 10 minutes, so I skimmed quickly over many details, but you may nevertheless find it useful as a starting point.

A PDF of the slides I used can be found here on Slideshare. You can view a recording of that presentation starting at 1 hour 6 minutes into this video:

The entire two hours of that discussion are well worth viewing. The other panellists and I explored some pretty deep topics. The discussion finally convinced the event organiser, Rohit Talwar of Fast Future, and I, to push ahead with plans for a new book on the future of AI. That’s the final topic in this edition of the newsletter.

5.) New book: A call for chapter submissions

Fast Future have developed processes to enable fast publication. Their most recent book, Aftershocks and Opportunities – Scenarios for a Post-Pandemic Future, progressed in just ten weeks from the initial call for chapters, to being published and available. Remarkably, it contains chapters from a total of 25 different authors.

Similar processes will now be applied to the creation of a timely new book: The Evolution of AI: Pathways to Artificial General Intelligence. The book will be jointly edited and promoted by

  • Rohit Talwar – Global Futurist Specialising in AI Impacts and CEO of Fast Future
  • Ben Goertzel – Chair of the Artificial General Intelligence Society and CEO SingularityNET
  • David Wood – AI Commentator and Consultant and Chair of London Futurists.

The editors are calling for chapter submissions that address one or more of the following themes:

  • How might the capabilities of AI systems evolve in the years ahead?
  • What can we anticipate about the potential evolution from today’s AI to AGI and beyond, in which software systems will match or exceed human cognitive abilities in every domain of thought?
  • Which of the possible scenarios for the emergence of significantly more powerful AI deserve the most attention?
  • How can we raise society-wide awareness and understanding of the underlying technologies and their capabilities?
  • How can governments, businesses, educators, civil society organizations, and individuals prepare for the range of possible impacts and implications?
  • How might societal ethical frameworks need to evolve to cope with the new challenges and opportunities that AGI is likely to bring?
  • What preparations can be made, at the present time, for the introduction and updating of legal and political systems to govern the development and deployment of AGI?
  • What other actions might be taken by individuals, by local groups, by individual countries, by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), by businesses, and by international institutions, to help ensure positive outcomes with advanced AI?
  • How might we reach agreement on what constitutes a positive societal outcome in the context of AI and AGI?
  • What new economic concepts, business models, and intellectual property ownership frameworks might be enabled and required as a result of advances that help us transition from today’s AI to AGI?

Chapters should be up to 1,000 words in length. Full drafts should be submitted via an online process by 15th September.

See this page for more details of:

  • The intended audience for the book
  • The background of the editors
  • The type of material that the editors will consider for inclusion
  • The timescale for editing and publication
  • Commitments that chapter authors are required to make
  • Benefits that chapter authors will receive.

// David W. Wood
Chair, London Futurists

This entry was posted in Newsletter and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Beyond wishful thinking

  1. Andrea says:

    It would be considerate to your reader if there were no links to Amazon, a most perfidious entity.

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