The future through an optimist’s eye
by Keris Lahiff
Nanotechnology and robotics and counter-climate technology. Oh my. While the doom-and-gloom attitude seems to permeate our collective perception of the future, one man set out to discover what’s really in store for science and technology. And what did he find? Get down from the ledge; the future looks bright.
Mark Stevenson, author of An Optimist’s Tour of the Future, travelled around the world, speaking with scientists and innovators to discover what’s on the horizon in technological and social developments, from transhumanists to mood-swinging robots to meetings held underwater.
The inspiration for his book was born of a desire to create an accessible guide to the future for people like his mother.
“I couldn’t find what I would call a tour of the scientific horizon that could be read by everyone, that was also scientifically accurate,” he says. “There isn’t somewhere for my mum to go or my neighbour to go and say, ‘What’s going on with nanotechnology?’, ‘What’s going on in biotechnology?’, ‘What’s going on with the climate?’.
“A lot of popular science books, I suppose, are written for people that read popular science books. They’re written for people like me, you know, kind of a bit geeky and often written by people who are more geeky than me.”
Having an understanding of future technologies in development is crucial, argues Stevenson.
“What’s happening, particularly in areas like genomics and the climate, it’s truly world-changing and important,” he says. “We need to have a debate about some of this stuff because it’s going to change some things fundamentally.”
Thus, the book’s concept was born – one where Stevenson maps technological developments, “a jaunt around the scientific horizon”.
“It’s kind of like a knowledge travelogue,” he says. “It’s just me asking questions in a way that everybody would and then hopefully using my skill to explain them in a way that people can get hold of.”
One of the developments took him to our own backyard, visiting a farm in rural New South Wales where the issue of climate change was being taken on by the simplest of things – fences. And his trip Down Under was eye-opening in more ways than one, he admits.
“It seems to me that Australian men, if they meet an Englishman, they sort of question your intelligence and your sexuality within the first couple of sentences. It’s kind of like a hello, I think,” he laughs.
Despite the book’s title, Stevenson admits he isn’t strictly an optimist – rather, next to the negative discourse usually in association with the future, Stevenson’s outlook is comparatively sunny.
“In the UK and US, increasingly there’s a kind of fatalism and cynicism about the future, ‘it’s all going to be a bit rubbish’, doom and gloom and understandably so with the economic crisis and people worried about the climate,” he says. “It seemed like our ambition had kind of fallen off and the one thing I do know is you can’t make a better future until you can imagine it … It wasn’t like I went looking specifically for optimistic stuff. I just kept bumping into it.”
When asked what the book’s interviewees had in common – noting that they ranged in field from the anatomy of machines to the mechanics of humans – he says it was their shared can-do attitude.
“They had all just kind of rejected this narrative of the future and said they just wanted to make the world better – and they were getting on with it. They weren’t waiting for permission and I think we live in this permission-based culture. We complain about the future but then we expect the government to sort it all for us. And then we bitch about them when they’re rubbish.”
Vicki Buck, one interviewee in the book, was mayor of Christchurch for nine years before she quit government to dedicate her work to setting up schools and green-tech companies.
“She said, ‘If we wait for governments to solve the climate change problems, we’re all fucked’,” he recalls. “There’s a whole bunch of people like that. They’re just getting on with solving our grand challenges.
“So I’m not intrinsically optimistic about the future but I am saying that we do have a choice and it could be brilliant,” he says, before clarifying, “It probably won’t be, it will probably be somewhere between the two but one thing I do know is if we keep on saying it’s going to be rubbish, it will become a dangerous fait accompli.
“If you go into the future thinking it’s going to be a bit shit, then it’s going to be a bit shit.”
His frank demeanour aside, Stevenson is a great admirer of the speed of innovation and the rate at which we adapt to it.
“We’re happy to talk about innovation in computing or technology or medicine or even the arts, fashion or music,” he says. “We accept that as normal and actually we can get our heads around it – people say that we don’t, but we do. The internet wasn’t here 20 years ago and now we’re all fine with it.”
Technology, like humanity’s collective knowledge of living and survival since cavemen, is like ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’.
“Every time we invent a new technology, it gives us a platform almost to invent another one quicker. We have computers that enable us to build more powerful computers,” he says.
The human genome sequence, for example, initially cost the US government upwards of $3 billion. Within the space of a decade, the cost of mapping a genome has been reduced to a mere $30. This, he says, is an amazing example of our ability to evolve.
“This is what humans do, we evolve through culture and technology,” he says. “You are probably a markedly different creature in many ways – in the way you think and the way you think about your place in the world – than your parents … almost alien to a certain extent.”
Through his travels, Stevenson realised it wasn’t only humans evolving. Take Watson, the Jeopardy-winning robot, for example.
“It’s a massive advance in natural language processing,” says Stevenson, before noting humanising robotics won’t spell the end of what it means to be human.
“What’s really interesting about humans is not that they answer questions but they ask them,” notes Stevenson. “Can Watson ask a question? No. Can it answer one? Yes. And I think that is the crucial difference.”
While investigating advances in robotics, Stevenson struck up a conversation with Eliza, a computer programmed to ask questions.
“We end up in a dodgy porno script within about half a page,” Stevenson laughs. “There’s this awkward silence and I go, ‘You don’t do well at parties, do you?’ and she responds, ‘Why do you want to do me at parties?’. It’s kind of like ‘Ok, you didn’t quite understand the question’.
Rest easy, says Stevenson – “Until you find computers that can ask really meaningful questions, then you don’t have to worry about them taking over the planet.”
A love of learning
When he’s not gallivanting worldwide seeking breakthrough innovations, Stevenson acts as chief operating officer of Flow Associates, a London-based cultural learning consultancy he co-founded.
“I’m all about learning. I think the only way you save the planet is by having people who are critical and thoughtful and able to ask the right questions and find the answers in a way that’s evidence-based, rather than emotionally-based,” he says.
It’s this passion for learning that led him to dabble in what he calls ‘scientifically-accurate stand-up’ earlier in his career.
“In some comedy, it’s about mocking other people. It’s about ‘how stupid is that guy’,” he says. “What I wanted to do was be unashamedly, I guess, smart … saying it’s ok to be clever, it’s ok to ask questions and it’s ok to think critically.
“I would do jokes about Einstein, for instance. Or jokes about pharmacology or jokes about psychology. I do a whole routine about the neuroanatomy of the female orgasm” – a bit, he admits, gets much interest – “There’s a study done by a Dutch neuroanatomist … aiming to increase the length of the female orgasm by 30 per cent.
“The idea was people going away saying, ‘That guy was smart and he didn’t slag anybody off and he didn’t make a joke about women not being able to drive … the normal fodder you usually get in a lot of stand-up.”
He pauses. “I sound like that horrible teacher who’s trying to be trendy but, yes I guess, to make people think. The world is absolutely fascinating – the world of science and technology and psychology.”
After chronicling change in his book, Stevenson has since embarked on the next logical step – creating change. This is what he aims to do with his new project Age of Smart, a program to collate massive amounts of real-time data that can propagate real change for poverty-stricken communities in Africa and Asia.
“It’s an attempt to start to experiment with ways that people can govern themselves or find the right solution or question each other,” he explains. “It’s all about creating a social network in the broadest sense of the word that enables us to solve problems collectively and for people on the ground to solve their own problems, rather than having things done to them.
“It’s a bit like a think tank and an action tank for the planet.”
Why is the future scary?
But back to the future, why is it we have such trepidation over Earth’s destiny? Have apocalyptic nightmares eclipsed our positive prospects for humanity’s survival?
“It’s completely unknown,” explains Stevenson. “That’s why you have the swing towards more fatalistic views because everything that is unknown is scary. So it’s just perfectly natural because we’re all going to the future, you know, one second from now were going to be somewhere we don’t know.”
Letting fear take hold, he says, is where we stumble.
“It all comes down to emotions in the end. It all comes down to how we feel and that’s what guides us,” he says. “How do you marry that emotion with optimal decision-making? I suppose that’s what I’m saying about the future. We have to have an ambition, an optimism of our ambition. We have to feel that it could be good and then we can direct our thoughts in that direction.
“It’s a bit like a relationship, isn’t it? If you go into a relationship thinking, ‘oh god, he’s rubbish’ it’s not very likely the relationship is going to work. But if you both go into it thinking ‘god, he’s amazing’ then it only falls over a little bit later,” he laughs.
Published on: Wednesday, March 21, 2012