America First?

In Future Studies on April 8, 2012 by Chad Jason Davis Tagged: , ,

What Happens When the World’s Best, Brightest Have Better Options?

(A review of Exceptional People: How Migration Shaped Our World and Will Define Our Future, Princeton University Press, $35.00)


Cover of the Book "Exceptional People"Migration is a tricky topic for discussion. Not only it is politically loaded, but the data sets which economists, demographers and social scientists can use to define the parameters of migration are inconsistent and not exactly plentiful. So when a team of authors endeavors to overcome the hurdles and produces a first rate primer for a general audience, it’s worthy of note.

To understand migration is to understand one of the great macro-impulses of our species. Our ancestors’ urge to range out of eastern Africa 10,000 years ago was the start of an historic cycle of social dispersal and consolidation. That distribution of humanity to try, err and succeed on this vast and variable planet gave us, in it’s brightest moments, the Axial Age, the Renaissance and the exponential advances of the Industrial Era. It also gave us the Dark Ages in Europe, the forced migration of 100M Africans in the name of nationalism during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and the periodic decimation of societies from disease or genocide.

But this look at migration offered up by Ian Goldin and his colleagues, Geoffrey Cameron and Meera Balarajan, is most compelling when it goes beyond the point of view of national economies and examines the economic impact at the personal level. Many decisions to migrate, domestically or internationally, are made at the family level. Often, one of more children in the family are chosen by the family to migrate, take advantages of the wage disparities between developing and developed nations and send back remittances. These payments home can the life blood of many local economies in developing nations, even providing a stabilizing force to the vagaries of local economic booms and busts. In the highly individualistic society of the United States, these family-first motivations don’t immediately spring to mind. But understanding them is key to crafting effective migration policies in the future.

No matter your political stance on migration, in the next 10 years nations immigration policies will definitely need adjustment – the dictate of demographics. The population replacement rate for society is 2.1 children per woman. And as women move from rural to urban settings they typically chose (or more to the point, can chose) to have less children. Thus many developed countries have replacement rates well below 2.1 (Japan, for example, is estimated to be 1.39 in 2012) and will face significant economic issues as a result. The US has held this backslide at bay despite increasing urbanization. How? Immigration. (The influx of Latinos in the 1980s and 1990s lead to a boost in the US fertility rate.)

Beyond smoothing out population extremes, migration, the authors point out, lead to the sharing of diverse ideas and therefore innovation. They cite US dominance in the world partly as a result of it’s policies on migration. But what happens when the world has fewer migrants, or when those migrants have more appealing choices. As more nations move toward “developed” status, the global replacement rate (already sinking since the 80s) will drift toward 0. Migrants, typically coming from developing countries (and mostly coming from Africa) will drift to societies where they are most accepted by local governments and existing social networks. Historically, the US has been that “city on the hill”. But its position as an attractor of high-skilled migrants is not a foregone conclusion, nor is its position as the world’s innovator. Migration policy will need to adapt to maintain competitive advantage globally.

Despite crafting an extensively documented work (nearly 40% of the book are endnotes), Goldin and his colleagues tend to stay away from more messy areas of study like sociology and anthropology. And sometimes their analysis seems a little too nice and neat. One area that particularly falls short is the way in which advances in technology could mitigate the need to tap the rising flows of immigrants from developing nations. Anyone who has read “Race Against the Machines” will know that technology could be a major disruption to migration of at least low-skilled laborers.

How technology may disrupt high skilled labor migration is harder envision. Regardless, the future of global human population dispersal is already in rough draft stage. Perhaps not quite as reliable as time and tide, but barring a black swan event, relatively knowable. The governments that adapt their migration policies earliest to create an equilibrium maximizing value for the host country, for these Exceptional People and for their families back home, stand to reap a significant competitive advantage characteristic of history’s most successful societies.

Ian Goldin also gave a great talk about this book at the Oxford Martin School of the London School of Economics. It’s worth a watch

And for another, shorter, perspective, The Economist had a good write up following the book’s release in May 2011. It subsequently became one of their best books of 2011.


Notes from an Information Coma

In Futuring, Technology on March 29, 2012 by Chad Jason Davis Tagged: , , , ,

Cruising at 34,000 feet back to DC on Southwest flight 891, I’m taking some time to reflect on my days at SXSW2012. If you’ve never experienced the conference, let me tell you that it’s hard to make it through without feeling drained. And no, that’s not from the drinking. With the ability to hit 30 sessions or Meet-ups in 6 days, plus countless opportunities to network over dinners, what’s draining is the amount of ideas you’re exposed to in a short window of time. I find myself, now, in a bit of an ‘information coma.’ And partly because this year was especially good for the topic of ‘the future.’

Trying to pick one session that was truly mindbending isn’t easy, but for me it was probably the session with SXSW’s first robot panelist, Bina48. Based on mind files from one Bina Rothblatt, the researchers are using DragonGo 11.5 voice-recognition software to feed spoken questions to a duo of databases, and generate unpredictable answers. We were, in essence, talking to an artificial intelligence. How is this different from, say, Siri? Well, for one, Bina48 has anthropoid features (literally head and shoulders above Siri) and has cameras embedded behind her eyes. So when you ask her a question…she ‘looks’ at you….then answers. The answers don’t always make sense, but it was fascinating to see the edges of limitation in the technology. And it also was a profoundly reflective moment as well. (Read more about Bina48 and the state of A.I. at the conference here.)

Some glimpses of the future were not nearly so far-reaching though. In terms of new ideas, I noticed a lot of brain power being applied to trying to bring the concept of mobile payments to early adopters. The sessions on this topic at SXSW ranged from the conceptual (Seth Priebatsch) to the practical. Isis, a company marketing a Mobile Wallet, spent a considerable amount of promotion dollars on brand placement and a prominent booth on the trade show floor. While a certain number of Android phones will have the necessary Near Field Communication (NFC) chips to make this happen, I don’t see this taking off until Apple releases an iPhone with an NFC chip. What I saw at SXSW leads me to believe that will probably not happen until the 2013 iPhone.

Continuing that look ahead to next year, if I had to guess what will be a hot topic I’d probably put my money augmented reality. Of course, SXSW panels are a meritocratically chosen by vote on proposals submitted via SXSW’s website in the summer. So you never really know what the wisdom of crowds will produce. But just as Siri made A.I. a topic of special note this year, I think in 2012 apps like Highlight and hardware like Google Goggles are going to bring forth a number of sessions about A.R. and just-in-time information delivery.

Beyond that, my final thought on SXSW2012 is on the number of sessions that traded on the concept of foresight by using the word “Future” in the session title. Many sessions had “future” in the title when they really were mostly talking about was what happened last year. So in the spirit of being the change I want to see in the world, I’m already kicking around a few ideas for sessions next year. If you’re interested in attending SXSW2013, and would like to co-produce a session related to futuring next year, drop me a line (

This post originally appeared on the World Future Society blog.


The State of A.I. at ‘South by’

In Human Nature, Technology on March 23, 2012 by Chad Jason Davis Tagged: , , , ,

The topic of artificial intelligence was front and center at the 2012 South by Southwest Interactive Conference…the result, I suspect, of Apple launching Siri around the time the panels were selected. Amber Case, a self-styled “Cyborg Anthropologist” got us started off right with a keynote Sunday about the recent history of man’s merge with machine. She claims any one of us who has a smart phone within reach is already a primitive form of cyborg. Our always-on access to the web makes our brains less and less storage devices for deep, contextual knowledge. Instead, our memories become more akin to a layer of metadata. That allows us to categorize and access knowledge based on our understanding of how to find that knowledge amidst the synapses of the hive-mind we call the World Wide Web.

The next day, Ray Kurzweil echoed that theme, telling a packed room of 4,000 people that we are at the front end of a miraculous century. We’re seeing a “democratization of innovation” that allows “small but passionate groups” of individuals to create revolutions that shape humanity. Like Case he feels we are already merged with machines, and whether the technology is internal or external to our bodies is largely irrelevant. That said, a more invasive merge is inevitable because, now that we have mapped the human genome, health and medicine have actually become information technology.

As for the rise of the machines, he talked about natural language processing as the next major hurdle for computing to break. And by his calculations a machine will pass the Turing Test sometime in 2029. (In fact, he has a $20,000 bet riding on it.) Journalist Lev Grossman, who interviewed him for this session, made the point that 2029 was technically after the predicted end of Moore’s law, but Kurzweil countered that Moore’s Law was merely the 5th paradigm in a series of exponential expansions of human technology. Mid-20th century we saw the vacuum tube’s exponential curve end, and innovators are already working on the expansion of processing power post silicon chip. For that sixth paradigm, Kurweil told the room “our brain extenders will be where the action is.”

So when will we see more ubiquitous A.I.? That was the focus of a panel featuring Hewlett-Packard developer William Hertling, Parametric Marketing co-founder and Chief Scientist Chris Robson, and science fiction author Dr. Daniel H. Wilson. Wilson, drawing on his struggles to create A.I. in the lab, feels that we’ll probably never have A.I. in the Asimov sense, but, like Case and Kurzweil, that it will emerge from our voluntary melding of machine and man.

Hertling, on the other hand, says we’ll see a single computer with the complexity of the human brain between 2028 and 2052. Sometime in that window there will be three signs that the age of androids is upon us: 1.) hardware capable of “maker” manipulation (a garage A.I. movement); 2.) good open source A.I. tool kits for programming; and 3.) A.I. animals, the logical precursor to autonomous, artificially intelligent androids.

Robson’s point of view is more immediate. To him, the danger is that the Singularity is already upon us. Smart phone addiction aside, he cited that we are already using machine intelligence to augment our human intelligence and design even better chips to run ever better machines. And he feels that if you look at the traderbots that handle financial transactions, or at advanced viruses like Stuxnet, we’re in the early days of technology learning to control its own destiny.

All of this theory was informative, but still paled in comparison to the session featuring SXSW’s first android panelist, Bina48 (also in attendance were actual humans: Bruce Duncan of the Terasem Movement Foundation, Stephen Reed of TexAI and author/researcher John Romano of Bina48 is based on the “mind files” from one Bina Rothblatt. Mind files are made up of units of information about a person, based primarily on their social media presence (video, pix, blogs), but also of psychological tests, Bainbridge surveys, and Sensecam data. Duncan told us that the Terasem hypothesis is that, given a comprehensive database, future intelligent software will be able to replicate consciousness. Rich personal data + a powerful AI = a virtual ‘you’. For this panel, the goal is not just artificial intelligence, it is digital life after physical death.

Android Bina48 Appearing on a SXSW Panel Discussion

Bina48 is the first instance of an android based on a mind file. The researchers are using DragonGo 11.5 voice-recognition software to take real world questions and feed them into the two databases: one at the chatbot level and one a character engine with specific info about Bina (Aspen) Rothblatt. Based on progressive learning, whichever of the two databases has a higher probability of delivering a right answer gets to feed that answer back out as speech.

We definitely were seeing the edges of the technology, and not every answer made total sense. But Bina48 can learn. So the conversation we had with her is less advanced than her appearance March 27 (with Bruce) at TedXHarlem, and more advanced than this interview she did with the New York Times in 2010:…

It’s difficult to imagine that every SXSW can be this A.I.-packed, but for anyone going this year you could get a great survey of the state of the art from some of the brightest thinkers in the field.

Here’s how you can follow or contact any of the panelists mentioned in this post:
Amber Case: on Twitter @caseorganic
Ray Kurzweil:, @KurzweilAInews
Daniel Wilson: - @danielwilsonpdx
Chris Robson: - @paramktg
William Hertling: - @hertling
Brian Duncan:
Stephen Reed: - @stephenlreed
John Romano: - @johnwromano

This post originally appeared in the World Future Society blog.


As American as Fear, Baseball and Apple Pie

In Human Nature on March 22, 2012 by Chad Jason Davis Tagged: ,

If you were not at South by Southwest for day #2 of the Interactive sessions, you missed researcher Danah Boyd‘s truly insightful and thought provoking talk on an issue of critical importance to 21st century society.

You see what I did there? I tried to trigger a little fear response in you…play off the fear that you’ve missed something to hook you into reading more of this post. Turns out the tactic is a tried and true method for attracting and sustaining attention. But mainstream media channels and social media platforms monetize it, and in pursuing that goal raise the stakes from a harmless hack on human behavior to something socially detrimental. Fear is a subject Boyd is currently researching, and she gave her SXSW talk to tell us where that research has taken her to-date. She maintains that “being American has become being fearful of others,” and made three claims in the presentation to explain.

First, Boyd claims Americans live in a culture of fear largely created to push consumers toward making specific financial decisions. This culture of fear is in no way new, but recent advances in technology act as force multipliers that generate levels of fear that can be toxic to a healthy society.

One of those multipliers is “the attention economy,” which she claims provides a fertile ground for the culture of fear. Quoting Herbert Simon she said, “In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else; a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes… the attention of its recipients.” In the attention economy, fear is a leading driver, capturing and monetizing value in ways few editorial strategies can. This control is easy to gain because, Boyd went on to tell us, fear is not predicated on statistical risk assessment, but rather on the perception of risk. And, as anyone who has ever worked in PR knows, perception is often reality…even if you have hard data stating otherwise.

Culturally we are suckers for word-of-mouth recommendations. And Boyd’s final claim is that social media, at a scale not matched in our evolution, amplifies the culture of fear by reinforcing false perceptions over statistical realities. The attention economy is a world of ‘too much to know.’ So much so, that we have to resort to defensive filters to manage the inflow of information. Some of those are algorithmic, but many are word-of-mouth (or ‘text of type’) via our social media channels. And while we think we’re managing the deluge, in such an environment we are often actually consuming fear that has been processed and reprocessed by the network.

Boyd cautions that it is easy to fall into dystopian rhetoric on this topic, and she isn’t anti-fear, per se. Quite the contrary, she sees fear as a “reasonable response to external stimuli.” It’s how we learn, and it can be fun (think adrenaline junkies confronting their fears). But when triggering fear in others becomes manipulative it then becomes a tool for control, and Boyd’s true objections are to the consequences of fear operationalized for social control.

Why does this matter to a futurist? Because if Boyd is correct, the wave of for-profit social media platforms launching in the next few years will be a major social component to account for in futurecasting. And of course, the role of the futurist also lends itself to helping society confront fear. Understanding the pervasiveness of fear allow us to develop similar but positive tactics to help spread a more reasoned vision of the future.

For more info on Dana and her research visit:
…or follow her on Twitter @zephoria

This post originally appeared in the World Future Society blog.


Stephen Wolfram’s “Galileo Moment”

In Futuring, Technology on March 21, 2012 by Chad Jason Davis Tagged: , , , , ,

Portrait of Stephen Wolfram

Photo from

Computation is mathematical poetry. That may not be self-evident, but when you hear Stephen Wolfram talk about it, there is little doubt. Wolfram arrived to a packed hall at the South by Southwest Interactive conference Sunday, and he came to preach the gospel of computation. It is, he told us, one of the biggest ideas in human history.

But don’t confuse computation with mathematics. Math allows us to describe the general features of our world, but computation lets us go deeper. For many years, wherever Wolfram went he would see computation, and often in nature. He began to wonder what were nature’s programs like. His self-described “Galileo Moment” came when he decided to turn his computer (his computational telescope) at the computational universe. After running thousands of simulations he now believes that there is a computational program that guides the universe…all we have to do is find it. And that analysis is ongoing.

In the meantime, Wolfram’s explorations of the computational universe come to you and me in the form of Wolfram Alpha, a 20-million-line computational engine for the masses. A Pro version launched February 8, and if you haven’t checked this out, the ‘wow’ factor alone is worth it. This is not a search engine, though at first visit it has all the design grammar of a search engine. It’s a “Computational Knowledge Engine” – in function, an automated research analyst that draws its data from primary sources (when it can) to help you combine and make sense of the world by running your queries through thousands of data sets. There are four goals behind Wolfram Alpha’s design:

  1. it has to know about our world, it needs to be able to access vast amounts of raw data
  2. it has to understand queries in natural language and be able to answer 90% accurately and another 5% with a reasonable accuracy
  3. it should automatically generate reports about the answer, providing extra context that users didn’t expect
  4. it has to figure out how to tell a story from the data pull

In the coming year Wolfram Alpha’s team will roll out the ability for users to upload their own data for analysis…this even extends to pictures snapped on your smartphone, which you’ll be able to analyze through the mobile app. Additionally, the team will augment the current myriad ‘small data’ sets with an increasing number of Big Data sets. These will help with natural language queries and contextual reporting.

Wolfram’s vision of the future is that ambient computation will become more and more prevalent in our lives. As we move through last days of Moore’s Law and on to the next paradigm, he expects we’ll see more auto-pilots for sectors of life like health and finance. But if the world is moving more and more to computation, what makes you and I special and distinct? Wolfram’s answer, in not so many words, is the social layer that collects and conveys our details and *our* life’s story.

Wolfram closed with this thought. Just as we look back to tribal cultures for the ‘wisdom of the ancients,’ the exobytes of data we will generate about ourselves during this period in history will be parsed by future generations for analyses that we can’t begin to imagine. The sum total of our Tweets, Likes, Shares, Pins, pix and video uploads will be the computational data set that our descendants will scour for the answer to what gives humans purpose. We are what we Tweet.

Leo Laporte and Tom Merritt did a great interview with Wolfram that touched on much of this. Check out episode 7 of the webcast series Triangulation.

This post originally appeared in the World Future Society blog.


Science Faction: Intel’s Futurist Leads Through Story

In Futuring on March 18, 2012 by Chad Jason Davis Tagged: , , , , ,

I think we all remember the relentless rain that set the film “Blade Runner.” It was that type of dystopian gale that soaked Austin, TX yesterday as geeks, techies, designers and, yes, futurists arrived for South By Southwest 2012. One of those futurists, Brian David Johnson, works for Intel and he came to “South by” for a day to talk to us about how the chip manufacturer creates its vision for the future of technology. His message and approach were a welcome contrast to the weather outside.

That Intel engages in futurecasting won’t surprise you (Johnson is currently working on the chip for 2019) but their process goes beyond the basics of trend analysis and attempts to develop a more comprehensive view of the technology consumer in 2020 and beyond. For Intel, that means ensuring that the algorithms and software 8-10 years from now have hardware that lets them take into account what it means to be be human. It also means creating chips for a world where computers have become so small and efficient (both physically and economically) that computing in essence ‘ghosts’ into the background of most consumers lives. And it means trying to assess what Johnson calls “The Future of Fear,” defining what it will mean to be safe (at the individual, community, state and global levels) in 10 years. This last point is the most critical because it means assessing what fears will exist and identifying which of those fears are specious (and thus combat by education) and which are valid (and thus addressed by mitigation).

The Future of Fear gets to the heart of Johnson’s approach: bringing humanity front and center in visioning the future. And his primary method of showcasing that perspective is science fiction, or more specifically, science fiction directly inspired by scientific fact for the purpose of creating scientific fact. This is science fiction that leads science fact, as opposed to science fiction that follows social anticipation. Done correctly, this type of science fiction becomes a lingua franca for people across a myriad of scientific disciplines to have a conversation about the future. It serves as an intellectual foil for discussion, reaction, learning and eventually an actionable vision of the future…one that Intel can realistically build.

But there’s another part to this as well. Johnson maintains the best way to change the future is to “change the story people tell themselves about the future they will live in.” And that belief lead to the formation of “The Tomorrow Project.” This consumer-facing initiative pulls in professional and amateur authors to write science fiction that envisions the future based on certain present-day scientific facts. It’s a fascinating push-pull approach, because not only is Intel trying to pull insight on how consumers will use technology 10 years out, but they are also pushing consumers a vision to educate and mitigate against The Future of Fear.

In innovation circles Henry Ford’s “faster horse” is thread-bare analogy. But Intel’s process shows you how one organization can systematically go about giving people jet packs when what they are asking for is winged horses.

Okay, Intel isn’t working on jet packs. But they are working to spread the word about The Tomorrow Project. To learn more you can visit the project webiste and check out an anthology of stories created for the project thus far. You can also follow Brian on Twitter: @IntelFuturist

This post originally appeared in the World Future Society blog.


How Healthy Is *Your* Information Diet?

In Human Nature on February 26, 2012 by Chad Jason Davis Tagged: , , , ,

Clay Johnson Presenting at the Affinity Lab in Washington, DC

Author Clay Johnson cooks a mean deep fried turkey, at least according to friend and moderator Alan Rosenblatt. This is an important thing to understand when the author in question is promoting a book (and potential movement) using the metaphor of a healthy, balanced diet. On the one hand, the message feels right, but no one loves a righteous delivery.

And Cotton Mather Clay Johnson is not. He stopped by the Affinity Lab in Washington, DC, last Tuesday night for the Net2DC talk about the ideas he puts forth in his book The Information Diet. Johnson’s history working for political campaigns (first Howard Dean, then Barack Obama) and his working life in DC have placed him in a fine vantage point to develop his theories, which liken healthy media consumption to the slow food movement. His “slow news movement” rests on three basic tenets. Media consumers should:

  1. “consciously consume” their media; seek information, not opinion
  2. “be an infovegan”: stay close to the bottom of the food chain by trying to find primary sources talking about what actually happened…not media outlets whose agenda’s heavily process what happened
  3. recognize that content is not a commodity: data is the commodity and content costs…even if the transactions (cookies in your web browser) keep it from being transparent

Johnson wants media consumers reward quality content both with clicks (“clicks have consequences”) and with actual dollars. And he’s very careful not to blame media companies outright. Numerous times he talked about how they are only filling their “fiduciary responsibility” to their shareholders to maximize profits by giving consumers what they want. The onus, Johnson feels, is on us to change the dynamic by demanding better quality information.

Johnson is a clever guy and he’s found a great hook to convey some serious points. But what I found most compelling was his assertion that history’s darkest moments arose from societies that had poor information diets…to much affirmation and not enough information. He admits, in a non-judgmental way, that opinion “tastes better” than news. It’s ‘information pizza,’ and why shouldn’t we love it? But it’s not what we need.

As you think about the future, lost of emphasis gets drawn to the charismatic mega-concept like The Singularity. But how we adapt to these changes in information presentation occurring now matters. What matters more though is how we raise the next generation of media consumers, for whom our definition of objectivity will seem artificial and structured.

There’s a great conversation that Clay Johnson had about his book on the webcast Triangulation, and you can read more about the book here.

In the spirit of Johnson’s slow news movement, here’s a snap of my notes from the talk…so you can see how I processed what he had to say…


*the infovegan section is noted most ‘healthy’ descending to least ‘healthy’


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