On Machine Ethics

The most recent meeting of Columbus Futurists delved into the topic of IBM’s trivia-savvy supercomputer Watson and his most recent performance on Jeopardy.

Some of the discussion had to do with the thorny issue of machine ethics, based on the very human fears that machines may become intelligent in unintended ways and make ethical decisions which are less than satisfactory.

As I reflected on the topic, my belief (and, frankly, hope) is that there will be multiple machine ethical standards from multiple manufacturers. Different companies will program their computers with different ethical frameworks and there will be plenty of opportunities to assess and compare the different frameworks.

I find this idea a relief. Often when we debate machine ethics, we think there must be only one ideal standard, the complexity will be deciding on what that standard should be and then we’ll have to deal with the consequences if there is something wrong with that standard.

In reality, machine ethics will be a process of continuous improvement, with no right answer, much like how ethics, morality and politics are for humans.

–James Moyer

The Forgotten Question: Why?

Over the years, I’ve reviewed a couple of hundred long-term and annual business plans and a few dozen proposals for new products or projects. These business plans almost inevitably followed the cookbook approach you would find in any modern business school curriculum: a review of past and recent financial results; a simplistic SWOT analysis that was heavy on strengths and opportunities and light on weaknesses and threats; a short list of the “big name” companies who competed directly with the products and services of the business; and a set of goals for the next 3 years, invariably phrased in terms of increased sales, increased profits, and decreased variable costs.

With the “facts” and “goals” thus established, these “strategic plans” would move on to establishing next year’s budget. Stating with BAU (business as usual), a base budget would be calculated by increasing the prior year’s budget by an amount equal to 2 or 3 times the rate of inflation. Added to this would be requests for funding new initiatives, usually encompassing either geographic or product line extensions, or significant IT infrastructure projects, justified not by quantifiable financial benefits but by “strategic” considerations often determined by what competitors were doing or consultants were selling. Depending on the industry and the egos involved, some strategic plans might also discuss merger, acquisition, or divestiture opportunities.

On the face of it, these plans did everything right, and they asked (and maybe even answered) the fundamental questions that managers are supposed to ask: how are we doing, who is doing what, how much does it cost, how can we improve, where should we spend our money. But in my experience, almost all of these plans failed to ask the only question that really mattered.


Why are we doing what we are doing? Why do we believe that our underlying (often unstated) assumptions are true? Why do we think our results will be different next year? Why do – and why should – our customers care what we do?

When I work with a failing company, I ask why. I get the managers together and ask them why do they think they are failing? Then I do the same thing with their employees. Then I ask, if what they’ve done is the past isn’t working, why are they still doing it?

When I work with a start-up, I ask why. Why do you want to do this? Why do you think there is a need that you can fill? Why do you think you can do it better than anyone else?

When I work with an established company, I ask why. Why do you do what you do? Why do you want to change? Why do you think the world is the way you think it is?

Why is the forgotten and fundamental question. Sure, the whos, whats, whens, and how muches matter, but without the context of why, those questions can only lead to recreating today tomorrow. Asking why is the key step in creating tomorrow today.

— David Grant

The New Model Revolution for 2011

As I watched and listened to events unfolding in Egypt the last three weeks , I had a nagging feeling that there was something new here, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

Then it occurred to me.  Like a twist in a detective story, I realized that – for a million people in close quarter for extended periods of time – it was too quiet.  Like the dog that didn’t bark when it would be expected to – the crowds of Tehrir Square reached a certain level of noise and activity – and then just hung there.  Once a plateau was reached about one week in, the volume never erupted out of control, the level of violence never reached anything like a war, and actually decreased after it peaked with the couple of days of thuggery.  There should have blood and guts everywhere, and there wasn’t.

This is a new phenomenon.  In our experience societies change either gradually (sometime painfully gradually), or disjointedly, and up till now that has almost always meant violence, casualties, tragic loss requiring re-building and slow conciliation.  In Egypt, in the end, it was like a staring contest.  We kept waiting for the punch, the explosion, the massacre of Tiananmen Square, but it never came.  Instead, the Egyptian establishment blinked, lost its desire to fight and crumbled.

Compounding the oddness of all this: it was not the first experience of this type in recent months.  Tunisia accomplished a similar achievement just before the Egpytian events began.  In Jordan, the King fired the parliament, and began to constitute a new government.  No violent public reaction.  And in Lebanon, late last year, the parliament broke up after a walkout of the leading coalition headed by Hamas.  And there was no violent reaction.  How many times have we seen radical political change in Lebanon without violence?  It is rare.

What is happening?  Violent action by large groups seems always to be set on a hair-trigger.  And yet here we have unprecedented political change being effected in a very different way.

Are we on the threshold of a new era?  Have the people in this region finally grown frustrated with the lack of progress violence has brought in the past?  And what is it about these new tactics and techniques that seem to be working, and displacing previous tendencies toward violence?

Some observations:

–          This is apparently not a movement supported by high tech, the Internet, or new technology.  In Egypt particularly, much was made of Mubarek shutting down Internet access – but it turns out that Egypt is only about 20% online anyway.  Granted, the people with the access will no doubt be affluent  and therefore influential – but the fact is, the word got out, and people figured out what to do, without benefit of large volumes of instant communications.

–          The masses of people demanding change were relatively leaderless.  Certainly Western media played its part in trying to find “leaders” to talk to, to get a sense of what’s next – but they seemed to be singularly unsuccessful.  There were a lot of interviews with people the reporters happened to be standing next to, people who were willing to talk.  But as near as I could see there was no single leader or even group who emerged to make plans, to direct the activity, or even to accept or reject Mubarek’s several attempts to appease the crowds.  It just happened.  (And when groups did come forward at the starts – remember all the concern about the Muslim Brotherhood – they were generally ignored.  The momentum was independent.)

–          The violence issue – came up only a few times, and when the reputed Mubarek thugs went galloping through the crowds it was not with guns blazing – but rather with fists and whips.  People were hurt certainly, and there were some deaths around the country.  Where the highest concentration of tension and foment existed, however, there was remarkable restraint.

In the events of Tunisia, which preceded the Egyptian event, many of these same observations apply.   The Army is maintaining peace, took control of day-to-day government, promised to maintain foreign treaties, and to establish the first footholds of democracy through early elections in as little as six months.  Not all is sunshine and roses: there are the inevitable recriminations (inevitable?  Is anything inevitable these days?), calls for punishing Mubarek, certainly for finding out where a supposed cache of many billions of dollars is hidden.   But there are no mobs roaming the streets – people are headed back to work.

But is this a new paradigm for revolutions to come?  Are we at a new level of civilized behavior – where we can make the most radical of notions or change a reality simply by sheer force of will?

Chris Anderson (of Wired and TED) retweeted this from Wael Ghonim, the Google employee who nudged the protest along at the beginning then spent two weeks in jail during the action:

“@Ghonim This is Revolution 2.0: No one was a hero because everyone was a hero.”

You could see Ghonim, at the end, standing up to be available to take the torch as he tried to inspire the crowd.

But his insight was correct – the crowd wasn’t having it.  They were all heroes – they collectively made the stand that changed their lives forever, effected a change that bullets had not.

Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia, Egypt.  Over the weekend there were incidents in Algeria obviously intended to follow Egypt’s lead, but the police – who were themselves protesting for more pay – tamped down any big crowds.   As I write this, reports from Iran that crowds gathering as they did 18 months ago are once again being subjected to violent tactics to repress their actions.  There were reports that the people of Bahrain were also planning demonstrations.

Meanwhile no one is resting on their laurels in Egypt – as the clean up continues, actions have already been taken to pave the way for a new constitution and free elections.  Some of these things are also happening in Tunisia and Jordan as well .

Can it last?  In a world that wants to see change and progress daily – if not hourly – this whole democracy thing is going to take a frustratingly long time.  Under constant observation – to paraphrase – the watched democracy never gels – or it seems like it takes forever.  Can all the vested interests bide their time and contribute their energies to setting up the orderly processes of election and legislation?

Time will tell. Regardless of the next step, though, we have seen the start of a new pattern.  Recall the teenager who breaks from his usual and gets a great grade in school?  He has proved he can do it – and thus at least one excuse is gone forever.  So it may be in Egypt certainly, and hopefully in other societies in the region as well.  It has now been shown that change can occur in peace.  So what’s the excuse if that fails?

— Rich Bowers

Revisiting Future Shock

It’s been forty years since the publication of Future Shock, Alvin Toffler’s 500-page manifesto about the acceleration of change and its impact on individuals and society as a whole. I remember reading it soon after it came out (it was about the same time that I read the Whole Earth Catalog, Silent Spring, and The Peter Principle) and thinking how profound it was. Now that I am older and …older, I thought I would revisit the book that launched futurism.

Toffler coined the term “future shock” to describe what he saw as an emerging illness– a “shattering stress and disorientation” caused by “too much change in too short of time”. In his view, the fundamental cause of this is a new force called “the accelerative thrust” that is leading to a “third wave” of society – the “Super-Industrial Society”. (The first two waves were the rise of agriculture leading to the “agrarian society” and the rise of technology leading to the “industrial society”.) Toffler’s thesis is that this force is causing a pervasive and disruptive acceleration of social change that is overwhelming our ability to adapt.

The Causes of Future Shock. In the first 370 pages of his book (did I mention that this is a long book?), Toffler supports his thesis by relating dozens of anecdotes and facts concerning the three characteristic aspects of his new super-industrial society:  transience, novelty, and diversity.

Transience deals with Toffler’s observation that human relationships with people, places, and things are becoming more limited in number, shorter in duration, and shallower in nature.

Toffler cites the emerging “throw-away society” – the replacement of old Barbies with newer models, glass containers with disposable plastic, and permanent structures with portable buildings – as evidence that the permanence of things that our parents took for granted no longer exists. In our relationships with people, Toffler sees a similar transience, noting that the movement from small towns to urban fundamentally changed the way we deal with people. We no longer work with our neighbors, neighbors change regularly as people move to new towns and new states, and the people who serve our needs are replaced so often that they become interchangeable.

Our relationships with organizations are also becoming more tenuous. Temporary project teams, corporate transfers and advancement, and the “flattening” of corporate structures all mean that relationships with bosses and co-workers – and the scope of employment itself – are always changing. (Another Toffler-ism – “Ad-hocracy” – makes its appearance in this discussion.)

Finally, Toffler asserts that knowledge itself has become transient. He argues that so much new information is created and then displaced every day that that “information overload” – the constant flow of evanescent information and the inexorable growth of accumulated knowledge – is outstripping our ability to process it. He also comments on the rise of the instant celebrity, the decline in thoughtful writing and analysis, and the coming dominance of visual information and communication by symbols rather than words.

Novelty is the term Toffler uses for a catch-all category encompassing changes in technology, business, and family relations.

Toffler begins with a Cook’s tour of 1960s scientific and technological research. Typically, he quotes the futuristic speculations of some scientist or official and then uses that information as a springboard to jump into the realm of science fiction. For example, he prophesizes a mass migration of people to undersea cities and the wide spread use of aquaculture, the weaponization of weather control, and the use of cloning, genetic manipulation, and artificial organs to create pre-planned humans and human-machine hybrids.

Toffler states that the super-industrial society will be characterized by slow or no growth in wealth and there will be a compensating shift to valuing experience over luxury. He predicts that products and services will be individually tailored to each customer, that “simulated” and “live” environments will provide people with short-term alternative life, and that businesses will use marketing and advertising to increase consumers’ “psychic” satisfaction. (Ok, he got that one right.)

Lastly, Toffler predicts that the very notion of family will change. (It’s not clear why he puts this in the novelty section; it seems better suited for his section on diversity – see below). He quotes two “experts”, one who foresees the “extinction” of the family while the other promotes it as the key to personal and social stability. He then suggests a more likely and “reasonable” middle ground with the following characteristics: the ability to purchase pre-designed embryos at a “babytorium”; a shift of parenting responsibilities from a child’s biological parents to “professional” family units; the institutionalization of temporary marriages; and a general acceptance of communal, polygamous, and homosexual families.

From novelty, Toffler moves on the diversity, the third characteristic of the super-industrialized society. He begins by repeating that future products and services will customized for each customer, but here argues that those customers will become increasingly more stressed by the sheer number of decisions they have to make. He calls this the problem of “overchoice”.

Toffler extends the idea of overchoice to the educational and cultural spheres. He suggests that the divide between those who support standardized education and those who believe in individualized teaching may be bridged by computers that will enable flexible course selection and non-classroom based teaching. In the arts, Toffler remarks on the fragmentation of audiences and suggests that mass media will disappear, to be replaced by “mini-markets” for films, radio, books, and magazines.

Lastly, Toffler states that increasing specialization, finer demographic categorization, and expanded individual choice, are leading society to splinter into a staggering array of “subcults” and “lifestyles”. Scientists and stockbrokers, bowlers and surfers, marrieds and singles, young and old – all belong to different subcults, and it is those subcults that define the activities, preferences, and lifestyles of their lives. (BTW, he claims that specialization within the scientific fields has created their own fragmented and isolated sub-cults.)

In Toffler’s view, individuals must make “super-decisions” and commit to cults and lifestyles that then dictate and influence all of the choices in their lives. To be “between” subcults or lifestyles is the ultimate in non-belonging, the most fundamental of life-crises. And, since Toffler believes that society in continually fragmenting into finer and finer subcults, it is inevitable that individuals will always be in crisis.

The Impact of Future Shock. From this exhaustive discussion of the characteristics of society that are leading to future shock, Toffler moves on to describing the resulting physical and psychological harm. In arguing that future shock can cause bodily damage and disease, Toffler uses the fact that sensory stimuli trigger neural and hormonal responses, to argue that too-rapid changes in our environment can overload the body. He also relies heavily on the work of researchers who have studied correlations between significant life events (marriage, divorce, birth of child, death of a spouse, etc.) and illness. Toffler’s not-unexpected conclusion is that “change carries a physiological price”.

Yet, according to Toffler, physiological harm is the least of our worries. Toffler blames a litany of social problems – drug abuse, apathy, nihilism, vandalism, conservatism(!) – on the overstimulation of our psyches. His support for this proposition includes the observations that fatigue can lead to difficulties in decision making, fear can lead to withdrawal, and audiences at rock concerts may suffer from sensory overload. Toffler also cites studies that show that individuals who are bombarded with too much information or requests for too many decisions may find their abilities to think and react “impaired”. (It is in this context that Toffler coins the term “information overload”).

Strategies for Survival. As I explained earlier, Toffler believes that future shock is an inevitable, unavoidable consequence of historical forces. But Toffler argues that we can protect ourselves from its worst effects with a combination of psychological reengineering, educational deconstruction, and technological control. In Toffler’s words: “the answer to future shock is not non-change, but a different kind of change”.

Toffler’s first suggestion for coping with change is to accept that different individuals will cope in different ways and at different rates and have society provide differing levels of social services keyed to individual needs. Those who can adapt but need assistance to do so, can be placed in “halfway-house” programs where the rate of change is carefully controlled, or less extremely, join “situational” support groups where they can share their concerns with others who are facing similar change-related stress. In more radical cases, Toffler suggests that crisis counseling programs and professionals may be needed to deal with traumatic life events and changes. For those who are simply unable to adapt to social and technological change, he suggests the creation of “enclaves of the past” – encapsulated, future-free, no-change zones subsidized by society at large.

Toffler then discusses the place of education in dealing with change. Starting with the premise that the goal of our current educational system has been to prepare students for factory life – and consistent with his view that we are entering a post-industrial age – Toffler argues for a “new educational revolution” focused on preparing students to deal with accelerating change.

In Toffler’s view, traditional schools are anachronistic and need to be replaced by a combination of computer-based instruction, independent study, and future-oriented apprenticeship programs. He argues for the creation of a decentralized and de-homogenized educational system directed by democratic community councils and driven by the changing needs of the community instead of traditional ideals of a liberal education. But in the same breath, Toffler notes that there must be some “common reference points” in order to provide a “unifying system of skills”. On the question of what should be in such a unifying curriculum, Toffler is deliberately vague, saying only that it must include “an extremely wide range of data-oriented courses”, “universal training” in “future-relevant behavioral skills”, and coursework that encourages both fanciful and systematic thinking about the Future.

Lastly, Toffler tackles the “problem” of “psychic pollution” caused by “runaway” technological change. He is careful to distance himself from those who “prate anti-technological nonsense”, but argues that the psychological, economic, and ecological costs of innovation need to be controlled. Toffler recommends creating panels of behavioral scientists charged with reviewing and clearing new technologies before they are released. These would be supported by technology ombudsmen – public agencies charged with investigating and acting on complaints of the “irresponsible application of technology”. Although he notes the controversial nature of his proposals, Toffler states categorically that “technology must be tamed … if future shock is to be prevented”.

Toffler ends his book with a diatribe against technocracy. Technocrats, he writes, are obsessed with finding economic (whether capitalist or Marxist) solutions to non-economic problems. They are myopic, focusing only on short-term consequences and oblivious to the futures they are creating or failing to create. And they are elitist and undemocratic, mired in the traditional hierarchical view that ideas and decisions must originate “at the top” before they can be promulgated to those below them.

Toffler’s solution to these problems is to educate a class of scientific futurists, supported by a broader, inter-disciplinary, creative community, all to be monitored by panels of behavioral scientists. Instead of technocrats deciding how to create the future, Toffler would empower neighborhood councils – “a massive, global exercise in anticipatory democracy” – that would first define and then assign priorities to consensus-derived social goals. These goals, issues, and concerns would then be analyzed by “professional” futurists skilled in mathematics, statistics, psychology, sociology, medicine, economics, and existing and emerging science. In this way, society would deliberately set its own course for the future and effectively control the rate of change itself. And thus, the raging epidemic of future shock would be controlled.

So, what should we make of all of this? Four decades after its publication, what can we say about Future Shock?

Well, the first thing we might notice is that the world has not come to an end despite the continuing rapid displacement of technologies, art forms, fashions, and ideas by the new, improved, and rediscovered. Some of these changes have certainly been disconcerting, perhaps even discombobulating. Even those of us who try to maintain a longer-term perspective, tempering our futurism with an appreciation of both human nature and historical experience, sometimes find ourselves mimicking our parents’ dismay when we seemed to discard their past in favor of our own “radical” presents and futures. But our discomfort – the sense of always being one gadget, one fashion, one fad behind – falls far short of the psychological illness and social breakdown that Toffler predicted.

Second, we might legitimately scoff at Toffler’s naïve and utopian vision of scientific progress tamed by universal democracy and councils of wise humanists. For all of his talk about the importance of humanistic studies, Toffler portrays a woefully limited understanding of how homo sapien, homo economicus, and homo socialis are all aspects of the same person. The idea that democratic decision making can and should be used to define the future presupposes an egalitarianism of wealth, opportunity, knowledge, and social beliefs that does not exist today, and probably never existed in the post-aboriginal past. And while it is not impossible that a new world consciousness based on Toffler’s ideas and ideals could arise, it seems highly improbable.

Finally, we might nitpick at Toffler’s predictions. Some of them were patently ridiculous when he made them; many more will likely never come to pass; but some proved to be quite prescient. As a result, those who are critical of Toffler can find lots to criticize; those who are impressed by Toffler find a lot that is impressive. And since my own track record of getting predictions right is probably no better than his, I won’t be so hypocritical as to judge him on the basis of what did or did not “come true”.

Still, when all is said and done, I find myself severely disappointed after rereading Future Shock. My problem with Toffler, however, has little to do with what he wrote and almost nothing to do with what he predicted and proposed. Instead, my criticism is based on how he created this view of the future.

Toffler started with the premise that the future was obvious and predictable, caused by technological innovation, and driven by an “accelerative thrust” to history. He totally ignored the existence of economic, demographic, and political forces that might be driving changes in personal behavior and society at large. Most damningly, Toffler used and misused cherry-picked anecdotes, studies, and facts to support his own broad theses and to express his own unsupported personal opinions.

It is this deliberate shading of the facts that I find most disturbing. Futurism, as a discipline, should be about more than personal opinions and agendas; it should require a certain level of ratinonal objectivity. To be of any value at all, futurism needs to be rooted in the scientific method: based on logical hypotheses, supported by facts and analysis, creating reasonable expectations of probable futures. In failing to meet these basic standards, Toffler demonstrated that he was no futurist.

Instead, Toffler was (and is) a prolific reporter of technological and demographic change, an observer of society and trends, and a popularizer of catchy phrases. He invented new words – future shock, ad-hocracy, information overload, super-industrial society, the third wave — to describe a technology-driven discordance that he expected to overthrow current society. He (and his wife and co-author Heidi) achieved world-wide fame as futurists and sociologists with the publication of this book and attracted a diverse group of disciples, including Newt Gingrich, Ted Turner, Mikhail Gorbachev, Kim Dae Jung, and Zhao Ziyang.

Forty years ago, Alvin Toffler introduced the field of future studies to a wide audience. And forty years on, Future Shock continues to be influential. Its strange, and often contradictory combination of optimistic and pessimistic predictions was thought-provoking in 1970 and still merits discussion today. In that sense, Future Shock has survived the test of time, and for better or worse, remains a classic in futurist writing.

— David Grant

Even “innovation” is a 2-edged sword in a quest for growth

The TechColumbus Innovation Awards last week give us yet another opportunity to praise the innovators in our culture.  Seems like our entire economy hinges on innovation – and particularly new ideas and new companies in the high tech sector.

But there are some who are questioning the actual track record of innovation – as we know it – in light of the current state of the economy and the progress of recovery from recession.  Notably Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University, has written a nice overview in the The New York Times, as well as a self-published ebook The Great Stagnation (available for Amazon’s Kindle or Kindle app), $3.99.

By a variety of measures, according to Cowen, our economy has not met the hype about high velocity, high growth.  Net income for individuals and families roared upward from World War II to1973, but barely passed 20% increase since 1973, on average, and has actually declined a bit in the last decade.  He looks at three major components of the GDP – government spending, health care and education – and their real contribution.  Through his lens, even though the three combine to 25% of GDP, they arguably make a veritable zero percent contribution to the actual flow of money.

High tech – and the much vaunted increase in “productivity” – also demonstrate at best an ambivalent actual contribution.  When you figure that “productivity increase” is code for “more work from fewer workers” – it’s not hard to understand how the jobs eliminated by more efficient communication and data capture and processing have created permanent changes in organizational structure and the need for people.  Further, most high tech innovations involve the elimination of middle men, and new products that are comprised of bits on a screen rather than hard goods requiring manufacturing, and distribution.  And where manufacturing is necessary – think iPod, iPad and the next iTech wunderkind – it is most likely to be manufactured outside our national economy by economies that have specialized in making manufacture as inexpensive and efficient as possible.

Ironically – or perhaps symbolically – Cowen’s book is published only for e-books, and is available only online.  Thus it required no paper, ink, printing presses, cardboard for packing, trucks for shipping, or retailers for sales.

It is not difficult to see how the “jobless” recovery – if recovery it is – persists.  Our proudest high tech achievements are undercutting the traditional economy and no one is thinking clearly about what is to come, and how this might play out.

And if we find the smartest move is to forego some high tech in favor of going back to a cruder, more atom-oriented product development – how does that fly relative to the green movement – and the reduction of the use of natural resources (from which all good products ultimately flow)?  So – thanks for all the good work TechColumbus, but we’re obviously looking at only the tip of something very very challenging.

Cowen’s book is quite readable, short and provocative.  And not a little disturbing.  Any thoughts of a self-healing financial crisis, a brief interruption of an inevitable upward spiral, fade decisively away.  But it would be a slap in the face worth taking, if it opens eyes to a reality we have managed to avoid until now.

— Rich Bowers