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My hope for technology in 2023
Instead of a list of predictions, I hope we can ask a different question about today's new technologies
It’s a new year, and time for predictions!
I usually love reading the “top 10 technology predictions” that are published in January every year throughout the tech world. They tend to be imaginative, optimistic, and motivating, like a utopian sci-fi story that could actually, really become true, and soon.
But this year I am disappointed. Most of the predictions for 2023 bring me down. I read the breathless enthusiasm for generative AI and the coming wave of AR/VR glasses and the transformative power of web3, and I can’t help but feel totally underwhelmed.
Behind each of these technologies and trends is a vision of the future, a sketch of what our lives and societies might realistically look like in a few short years. And too many of this year’s predictions have implicit visions that are technologically cool, sure, but humanly uninspiring.
Three uninspiring visions of the future
Here are three implicit visions that take up most of the space in the 2023 predictions I’ve read.
Vision #1: screens everywhere & extreme convenience
So much of the energy from the tech and startup worlds seems to be focused on this vision of the future, captured so memorably in the Pixar movie Wall-E:
In the future, everything will be so convenient that humans will never need to get out of their chairs and can stay indoors all the time. Entertainment will be so compelling, and screens so easily accessible, that we can all sit back and relax twenty-four-seven. Sometime very soon, everyone will be strapping their screens directly onto their faces, and autonomous drones will bring whatever we need directly to our couches!
OK, I am exaggerating. But only a little bit. Of all of the pitches, visions and demos for AR/VR (and autonomous delivery vehicles, which I’m putting in the same category here), I cannot think of many that were genuinely inspiring to me, that felt like they moved us towards a better world. There is lots of talk about the wonderful educational experiences we can build with VR, but 99% of the development seems to be about letting me buy virtual sneakers for my avatar and similar innovations that take their inspiration from the gaming world.
One exception is the subtitling and translation glasses that Google is pitching for AR, which is a legitimate blend of idealistic and futuristic and actually feasible very soon. I hope more ideas and inspiration arise in the AR community that move in the same direction.
Vision #2: AI for control
A second vision the future that seems to be implicit in today’s technology trends was called out by Yuval Noah Harari several years ago in his essay, Why Technology Favors Tyranny: it’s a future in which the most powerful actors in society – governments, corporations, oligarchs – are able to purchase mega-powerful AI-robots that help them exercise power beyond the limits of democratic oversight. One might consider Facebook’s ad-targeting AI to be a cornerstone of this imagined future (authoritarian leaders around the world certainly do). Harnessing the power of big data, managing fleets of drones, satellites and cameras, automating interactions with end-users/customers/citizens – so many projects are intended to empower the already-powerful. The Chinese communist leadership is leading the charge here, but there are plenty of innovations in the Western world that share the same basic direction.
And while some of the already-powerful organizations in our societies have good, humanist, life-affirming goals, those remain in the minority. The common denominator for the already-powerful is to maintain and expand their power, which is the focus of most market-driven development. And the AI tools being created these days are using algorithms that are, definitionally, beyond our ability to understand them (otherwise we wouldn’t have needed AI to create them in the first place), which biases these tools against transparency, democratic control and values of openness.
Vision #3: Programmers make a new society
Then there’s the crypto / web3 / NFT imagined future, another implicit vision that is influencing thousands of entrepreneurs and many billions of dollars of investment capital. Even though cryptocurrency trading has been somewhat discredited in the wake of the FTX collapse and subsequent market crash, from where I sit, it seems like the crypto vision and philosophy remain well-funded in the tech industry, even accelerating in domains outside currency-trading.
This vision is of a future where humanity can escape from the “restrictive” rules of modern society’s institutions – like government regulators, central banks, and media gatekeepers – to give the power not necessarily back to the people, really, but to give the power to those enlightened few who master the relevant computer-programming tools.
To be fair, there are some interesting abstract ideas behind web3, ideas that generally fall into the category of political philosophy: about governance and individual rights and contract theory. But when it comes to sci-fi visions of the everyday life these technologies might enable in the coming years, the details always seem vaguely anarchic, cyber-punk and radically libertarian. I have not yet found an idealistic and humanistic vision of a web3 future that inspires me, with the exception of the work being done at Celo in the Southern hemisphere.
I know I am caricaturing here for all three of these future-visions, that there are many leaders, entrepreneurs, and investors working on projects within VR/AI/Web3 that are genuinely brilliant and utopian. But personally I have a hard time getting excited about them.
A fourth vision I can get behind: the Green Vortex
This is the vision that animates most of my work these days: imagine a future in which our energy comes from renewable sources, our industries use sustainable materials, we buy less stuff and it lasts longer, we eat less meat and are healthier, and our societies continue to deliver safety and prosperity in harmony with nature.
That vision was described in detail two years ago by Bill Gates in his book, How To Avoid a Climate Disaster. Three weeks ago, the startup accelerator YCombinator published a detailed list of startups they would like to fund that will build the Green Vortex future. It is remarkable how consistent the YCombinator list is with the Gates book and the thinking that came before it.
The vision is clear, and motivating. And I think the reason it is motivating is because the vision is not based on technology, actually. The vision starts with an idea about the world we’d like to live in, and then works backwards to ask: what technology can help us get there?
This vision has limits, of course. To most people working on it, the Green Vortex is a vision that maintains our existing society and our existing lifestyles. It is a vision about swapping out the backend of our lives but keeping the frontend the same. In this way, it’s an anti-vision, a future that looks exactly the same as the present.
There is a memorable passage in Gates’ book when he writes about how much he likes eating blueberries in the morning, even in the winter, and he imagines a future in which he’ll still be able to do that without harming the climate. I, on the other hand, am more excited about a future in which we eat more seasonally, in which we buy more locally-produced food (not exclusively), because I’m convinced it will put us more in touch with nature, boost small local businesses and make us healthier.
I, too, want to avoid a climate disaster. But surely we can imagine a future even better than merely avoiding catastrophe? Surely we can come up with a vision for a slightly different world with less injustice, more prosperity, more safety, more culture, better health, etc. etc. etc.?
Asking a different question
As I suggested in writing about the Green Vortex, I think we’re asking the wrong question about technology these days.
We see the advancements in AI, in miniaturization of optics, in energy density of batteries, and we ask: what can we do with these new tools? But this question inevitably leads us to an answer that uses the logic of technology and the context of today’s world.
Instead we should ask: what kind of world do we want to live in? What do we want our lives and societies to look like in the future? Then we can work backwards and figure out if new technologies can help us get there. When we find a match, an idealistic vision and an appropriate technology to get us there, that is truly exciting.
These are harder questions. They require more imagination. They require more humanism and contrarianism and idealism.
I believe that many of the technologies being developed today – especially AI, AR and energy storage – are exciting because of what they enable in other fields. Just trying to package AI as a product, like the new chatGPT, is intellectually intriguing but not life-changing. The products and services that will truly change the world are second-order, like the new advances in biotech enabled by the AI AlphaFold, or new advances in materials science, or urban planning, or new capabilities of robotics in agriculture that are enabled by new AI tools.
In search of a more inspiring vision
We need the imagination to dream up a world that would be much better than today’s, and then we can look at our new fancy toolbox and ask, which of these new technologies can help us get there?
So even as I continue to work on the Green Vortex, I am in search of new visions that can lead a new wave of innovation.
What if, in the future, instead of just replacing existing industry with green industry, and existing cars with electric cars – what if the future had decentralized, localized industry, and ten times fewer cars?
What if the retail stores of the future could be profitable even in small towns and poor neighborhoods?
What if there were no more colds, flus and covids?
What if we invented transformative education experiences that inspired each person, adults as well as children, to love nature, to love peace, to empathize, to take care of the people around them?
What if jobs of the future had higher minimum wages, four-day work weeks by default, and rich on-the-job training? This may sound like a political agenda, but could technology innovation help us get there, too? Why not?
So instead of any predictions for this coming year, I have a hope: that we all work together to develop inspiring visions for what we can achieve with all these new powers. I hope that the “Positive Impact” community develops some ideas that embark an even greater segment of the technology and startup world in their pursuit of a better world.
I don’t know what those visions are, but I know that to get there, we need to start by asking the right questions.