What does it mean to be human in an age of machines?

The Neurobotics Lab’s prosthetic hand is a close replica of an actual human hand. Researchers are working to integrate it with the human nervous system. Credit: M. Levin, University of Washington

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In his 1854 book, Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Men have become the tools of their tools.” Thoreau’s assertion is as valid today as it was when he made it over one hundred and sixty years ago. Whenever we shape technology, it shapes us, both as individuals and as a society. We created cars, and cars turned us into motorists, auto mechanics, and commuters.

Over the centuries we’ve populated our world with machines that help us do things we can’t or don’t want to do ourselves. Our world has become so saturated with machines that they’ve faded into the background. We hardly notice them. We are reaching a new threshold. Our machines are getting networked, and enabling new forms of human machine symbiosis. We’re entering a new era where fifty billion machines are in constant communication, automating and orchestrating the movement and interactions among individuals, organizations, and cities.

Institute for the Future (IFTF) is a non-profit think tank in Silicon Valley, that helps organizations and the public think about long term future plans to make better decisions in the present. Mark Frauenfelder, a research director at IFTF interviewed Rod Falcon, IFTF’s Director of the Technology Horizons Program, which combines a deep understanding of technology and societal forces, to identify and evaluate these discontinuities and innovations in the near future. Rod discussed Tech Horizon’s recent research into how machine automation is becoming an integrated, embedded, and ultimately invisible part of virtually every aspect of our lives. Read the rest

How to help shape a future that is more sustainable and equitable for everyone

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Together, we can shape a future that is more sustainable and equitable for everyone! If you are interested in joining together with creative technologists, social inventors, policy experts, and thought leaders for a two-day event in Palo Alto where we will tease out the thorny challenges of the evolving on-demand economy and prototype real solutions tell us here.

Institute for the Future’s Positive Platform Design Jam November 30–December 1, 2016 8:30am-5:30pm

Institute for the Future Palo Alto, CA, USA

The IFTF Workable Futures Initiative is a call-to-action for policymakers, platform developers, corporate strategists, activists, and of course other workers of all kinds, to join us in blueprinting these positive platforms for the future of work. The time is now to grapple with the challenges ahead, develop sustainable solutions, and create a future of work that is workable for everyone. Read the rest

What happened when Mike Zuckerman brought his San Francisco culture hacking ethos to the migrant camps in Greece

Mike Zuckerman (striped shirt) with Elpida residents.

In 2013, Mike Zuckerman, a self-described culture hacker, attended the White House’s National Day of Civic Hacking. Inspired by what he’d learned there, Mike returned to San Francisco and founded [freespace], an organization that focuses on sustainability and urban tactical development. In the spring of 2016, Mike went to Greece where he spent four months rehabilitating an abandoned clothing factory in the industrial sector of Thessaloniki, turning it into a humane shelter that he and his colleagues named Elpida. Unlike the official migrant camps in Greece, where refugees have little say in the day-to-day operations of the camp, Elpida put its 140 residents in charge, and the results were remarkable. Not only is Elpida much less expensive to run on a per person basis than official camps in Greece, the residents don’t suffer from boredom, restlessness, and disengagement like they do at NGO-run camps.

As a pilot model, Elpida offers hope and improved living conditions for refugees in a place where no other NGO was able to provide in this kind of support.

Mike has been working with Institute for the Future (where I'm on staff) as an affiliate since 2014 and recently accepted an IFTF fellowship to help uncover and study new paradigms for restoring vulnerable places and space, such as post-disaster sites, informal refugee settlements, and decaying urban neighborhoods.

I spoke to Mike about his work at Elpida in August, 2016, just days after he returned from Greece.

Listen to the audio podcast interview with Mike Zuckerman here. Read the rest

Blockchain meets virtual reality

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Institute for the Future (where David and I are research directors) has a Blockchain Futures Lab blog. Today, Kathi Vian of IFTF presents a scenario involving a "bottom-up distributed toolset for aggregating large groups of people with similar interests, needs, and values into civic affinity groups."

This virtual city council is not simply passive profiling, however. You can interact with others to explore the issues with people who are a lot like you, a little like you, or very different from you. These interactions create the opportunities to develop more nuanced affinities with large numbers of people.

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Understand the blockchain in two minutes

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You’ve heard of bitcoin. It’s a form of digital cash you can send to anyone, even a complete stranger. You may not have heard about bitcoin's digital ledger, called the blockchain, tracks and validates bitcoin transactions. Blockchain technology has enormous potential beyond bitcoin to automate every type of online transaction that requires a degree of trust. In this short video, produced by Institute for the Future (where I am a research director), Olivia Olson (the voice of Marceline the Vampire Queen in Adventure Time) explains how blockchain technology can be used to launch companies that are entirely run by algorithms, make self-driving cars safer, help people manage and protect their online identities, and track the billions of devices on the Internet of Things. Read the rest

By His Things Will You Know Him (podcast)

(art by Daniel Martin Diaz)

Earlier today, we published my story "By His Things Will You Know Him," which is from the forthcoming Institute for the Future anthology "An Aura of Familiarity: Visions from the Coming Age of Networked Matter." I've read the story aloud for my podcast, if that's how you prefer your fiction.

MP3 Link

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"By His Things Will You Know Him," a short story

“My father kept things. I mean, he didn’t like to throw things away. Nothing.” I looked into his eyes as I said these words. I’d said them before, to explain my spotless desk...

Gweek 089: Marina Gorbis, executive director of Institute for the Future

Earlier this month, Boing Boing posted an excerpt from Marina Gorbis's fascinating new book, The Nature of the Future: Dispatches from the Socialstructed World. As David wrote, the book is "a compelling, provocative, and grounded book about how technology is enabling individuals to connect with one another to follow their passions and get stuff done, outside of large corporations, governments, and the other institutions that typically rule our lives." David and I spoke with Marina about The Nature of the Future for this edition of GWeek.

When Marina was a child, growing up in the Soviet Union, she lived with her sister and widowed mother, a medical doctor at a government clinic in Odessa. Her mother’s salary was meager, and her mother wasn’t a member of the privileged communist party elite, and yet Marina says she and her sister enjoyed a life filled with the arts, good food, fashionable clothes, travel, and education. It was all possible, she says, because her mother knew the value of social capital. “Social connections,” Marina writes, “were a powerful currency that flowed through [my mother’s] network of friends and acquaintances, giving her access to many goods and services and enabling our comfortable, if not luxurious, lifestyle.”

Marina never forgot this lesson about the incredible power of networked individuals, and it directed the course of her professional life. For the past 7 years, Marina has been the executive director of the Institute for the Future, an independent, non-profit research organization and creative design studio in Palo Alto California where David is also a researcher. Read the rest