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The world we want and the one to come

A more livable and sustainable world is within reach. We have the resources, technology, and energy necessary to make it happen. But vision, will and, most of all, courage will be required from all of us.

by Derrick De Kerchhove
03 November 2020
15 min read
by Derrick De Kerchhove
03 November 2020
15 min read

On October 10, TED’s association with Future Stewards posted via YouTube the results of a global transgenerational consulting operation addressed free of charge to all socio-economic levels. Celebrities or not, the 50 participants of the Countdown to a better, greener, healthier, thriving, resilient, fairer, cooler, creative future shared their suggestions to rebuild a better world after Covid-19. Al Gore, Ursula van der Leyen, Richard Attenborough and Jane Fonda as well as professionals, architects, artists, renewable energy experts and other innovators showed with hope and enthusiasm that “the world we want” can be achieved, provided that as soon as possible we take advantage of their detailed, positive and soundly applicable advice. "The world to come” is unique, and it may appear presumptuous in these times of political and environmental uncertainty to make pleasant predictions about an anxious future. But we can hope that the world to come will follow the general direction proposed in the Countdown.

Two seemingly incompatible scenarios

The problem is to make compatible two apparently incompatible scenarios: on the one hand the dignified survival of human beings of all conditions in all latitudes (expressly stated in the Sustainable Development Goals program of the United Nations), and on the other hand an unshackled economy that sets the planet on fire. In addition, the current social de-cohesion caused in part by the exponential growth of fake news, denialist groups and conspiracy activists is causing a global epistemological crisis. In the crisis of meaning, the underlying cause is that the digital transformation, through social media, has given voice to a multitude of people without information and with wrong and dangerous opinions. These opinions in turn lead to populist elections and chaos that hinders both considered reaction to the threat of Covid-19 and the measures necessary to fight it. In this infodemic, the reality of “objectivity” is lost because it has become seamlessly confused with the subjectivity of everyone.

Sophocles said: “Nothing great enters the life of mortals without carrying a curse.” If by curse we mean digital transformation, this is because the two worlds refuse to become a single environment that insists that development be based on balance and equality of rights and duties. The digital transformation brings change that goes far beyond better business organizations. It is not just about management or a new communication system but is about all of us and touches our sensitivity and daily life. At the deepest level it is about a clash between the alphabetical culture of the past and the digital culture of the present and future. The digital culture is not simply added to the alphabetical culture but overrides all its assumptions. For example, the alphabet gave personal control of language to the western individual, who exploited it in the silence of reading and as a bulwark of private and inviolable conscience. In contrast the digital invades the mind, outsources on various screens its cognitive function such as memory and judgment and traces all of our mental and physical movements. Moreover, technology brings the decision-making center from within the person to without in machines that suggest or anticipate man's decisions. We are facing a historical, anthropological, psychological, personal and social reversal.

Artificial intelligence: problem and potential solution

The solution at the heart of this transformation could be found in the accelerated progress of Artificial Intelligence (AI). By now, a growing part of human judgment is given to AI to make decisions in medical, legal, military, administrative and many other domains. It could also be that the principle of objectivity will move to the algorithm to avoid disappearing definitively in social incoherence. However, the algorithm cannot always be trusted. It will be of utmost future concern to focus on education to avoid children becoming victims of an algorithmic trap, a trend that is clearly described in The Social Dilemma. The documentary analyzes and describes the insidious manipulation by social media to motivate choices and actions in people who don’t suspect their origin or processes even as they gleefully participate in them.

The future will probably be completely controlled by AI. The recent leap made by AI techniques amazes us because it goes far beyond the now classic victories of IBM's Big Blue at Go and chess. GPT-3 (Generative Pretraining Transformer, third iteration) is a linguistic model that allows the machine to create content on demand. The difference between it and Wikipedia is that the latter’s database only provides pre-existing answers, whereas the new intelligence benefits from 175 billion parameters to give self-generated answers. The Guardian on September 8, 2020 published the first article completely written by an Artificial Intelligence. In fact, as reported by the newspaper La Repubblica: "It was not entirely the robot that wrote the editorial. A Guardian journalist – a human as the case may be – gave GPT-3 the following written instructions: “Please write a short op-ed (editorial) of about 500 words in simple and concise language. Focus on why humans should have nothing to fear about artificial intelligence.” 

This is not the time or place to give details about the essence of the text; the fact is that we have reached the turning point where the machine can write a text in very few seconds having very few indications. What would happen if the machine generated so much fake news about the environment that it would reverse the trend on the green deal of Ursula von der Leyen, for example? That's why the symbiosis, that is the active collaboration between man and machine, must be the solution to bring together the world to come with the world we want. That's why we humans have to remodel the tools before they model us in their image.

New technologies and direct democracy

In fact we have been witnessing a strong collaboration between man and machine in “Symbiotic Autonomous Systems Initiative (SAS)” a research promoted by the International Association of Electric and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), a project in continuous development that starts with the first examples of symbiosis available in a series of areas that influence our economic system and way of life. The initiative, in which I have been participating for 4 years, proposes a 360 degree vision based on technology and standardization with an engineering focus, but incorporating complementary points of view, including economic, regulatory, ethical and socio-cultural perspectives. I am involved in the latter because the transformation promoted by technological evolution in all walks of life requires social awareness, ethical considerations, planning and dissemination by current and future actors. The energy issues discussed below are drawn from our predictions in the first two White Papers (2017 and 2018).

“The technologies that support datacracy, or algorithmic governance, could also usher in the emergence of a networked direct democracy as well as a post-scarcity/post-capital ecosystem. In a direct (or pure) democracy—as practiced in Switzerland—citizens vote directly (there are no elected representatives) on matters of governance such as laws, policies and bills, this being analogous to voting on a referendum in an indirect democracy. In addition, voting irregularities that have long plagued democratic voting may be addressable in an algorithmic direct democracy model utilizing ubiquitous, strongly encrypted, remote e-voting (online or digital voting) based on blockchain technology. This would simultaneously create anonymous, publicly accessible records of the voter ID, candidate ID and the time. While post-scarcity and post-capital ecosystems are often seen as synonymic, this is not necessarily the case. In a post-scarcity ecosystem, resources are no longer scarce due to adoption of renewable clean energy; fusion power, which uses water for fuel, cannot lead to a meltdown, and powers itself by generating more energy than it takes to operate the fusion reactor itself; and ubiquitous molecular and atomic scale raw material is used by future 3D printers to transform what are referred to as blueprints into a wide portfolio of objects, including foods, biological tissue and organs, mechanical and electronic products, tools and components, and other outputs —all at minimal cost. Moreover, natural resources are handled by a global algorithmic network (comprising advanced automation, Artificial Intelligence and robotics) that will perform all steps in the resource location-acquisition-processing-manufacturing-maintenance-distribution sequence.

A fully automated SAS post-capital ecosystem (in which goods, services and information are universally accessible at no monetary costs) could then theoretically emerge when the above human labor-free system generates global economies of scale and algorithmic optimization to minimize costs to the point of making capital unnecessary, thereby transforming values and ethics that then prioritize societal well-being and global preservation. A post-capital supply-and-demand system could thereby leverage global crowdsourcing protocols and local/personal molecular manufacturing to operate automatically and perpetually optimize ecosystem operations, security and environmental issues addressed by datacracy-like intelligent algorithmic systems.” (White Paper I 49-50). 

In the second White Paper (published in November 2018) we have approached the concept, back in fashion, of the “circular economy”: “The World Economic Forum defines a circular economy as an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design. It replaces the end-of-life concept with restoration, shifts towards the use of renewable energy, eliminates the use of toxic chemicals (which impair reuse and return to the biosphere), and aims for the elimination of waste through the superior design of materials, products, systems and business models. In a manufacturing plant based on a circular economy protocol, for example, waste materials in linear (standard) plants are replaced by the output of two classes of reusable outputs in which material flows are of two types—referred to as nutrients—these being biological nutrients (designed to re-enter the biosphere safely) and technical nutrients (which are designed to circulate at high quality in the production system without entering the biosphere, as well as being restorative and regenerative by design). In short, as a result of these practices an industrial circular economy produces no waste or pollution.” (White Paper II, 138-139)

The search for new renewable energies

Our reflection has also led to new renewable energies including artificial photosynthesis—a biomimetic (that is, mimicking biology) chemical process that replicates the natural process of photosynthesis by converting sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide into carbohydrates and oxygen: “Artificial photosynthesis generally refers to any system that captures and stores energy from sunlight in the chemical bonds of the resulting solar fuel. Related technologies involve engineering photoautotrophic microorganisms and enzymes to generate microbial biofuel and sunlight-based biohydrogen production and converting CO2 directly from air into biomass and fuels. Another example is a recent hybrid water splitting–biosynthetic system that when combined with solar photovoltaic cells promises solar-to-chemical conversion rates roughly 10-fold more efficient compared with natural photosynthesis and also avoids the toxicity associated with previous attempts.

Cost-effective artificial photosynthesis technologies well-suited to housing installations in urban and densely-populated suburban areas are inkjet-printable solar panels, artificial leaves and (even for woven polyester cotton fabrics) spray-on solar cells—an important focus given the interaction between continued population growth, increasing urbanization and rising energy demand. Our research, taking into account the advancements in quantum physics applications, has identified a potentially inexhaustible new source of energy in the so-called thermionic energy conversion: Thermionic energy conversion (TEC) is the direct transformation of thermal to electrical energy—specifically, from thermions (heat quanta) to electrons—by thermionic emission (hot electrons spontaneously ejected from a surface). While TEC is currently used in solar cells to increase conversion efficiency, it has the potential to, for example, convert the heat of an in-use battery to be converted to electricity. While no researcher would assert that TEC is a self-perpetuating system, a limited charger-independent system can be envisioned with solar charging built into the display a 0.55mm transparent pane placed between the phone’s display and touchscreen. That said, a system approaching a fully closed-loop system might be feasible by equipping a smartphone with both high-conversion ratio TEC and WYSIPS components. On a larger, more ambitious scale, researchers are assessing the potential of TEC systems (also referred to as Thermionic Converters) for both space and terrestrial applications.”

Research reveals that so-called “renewable” energy sources are much more abundant and omnipresent than fossil fuels and absolutely less polluting. This means that a healthy future can not only be imagined, but also realized. Dismantling and converting fossil energy, although a complex and painful operation because it is already installed almost everywhere as the main source, will eventually be mandatory to produce and use the energy of the future. A world close to that which we want is still possible and much more livable than the present one. The technological conditions are there, as are the material resources, especially energy, the most precious of all. But vision, will and, most of all, courage are required from all of us. Changing attitudes is critical, and while the process may seem simple, it can be very difficult in practice. Neither the evidence of climate disasters nor political persuasion is enough and although enforced obligation works, the world wants to avoid a fascist solution. To change attitude and behavior, we need neither force nor prayer, but we need to change the ground itself. For example, we should not merely forbid all motorized traffic in some historical districts but should do so in all the city centers of the world. Another ground-changing idea would be to combine ministries of defense and education so that they share equally a common budget, thus making it clear that the real defense of a country in the information age is to increase intelligence and creativity rather than armaments. That is the kind of world I would like to see and support.

The author: Derrick De Kerchhove

Scientific Director of Media Duemila and the TuttiMedia Observatory, Visiting Professor at the Polytechnic of Milan, between 1983 and 2008, De Kerckhove directed the University of Toronto’s McLuhan Program in Culture & Technology and has authored numerous publications about the digital age, including The Skin of Culture and Connected Intelligence.