Turning Points: Consequences Of A New Era

A high school drone lab somewhere near you.

Tom Vander Ark

Facial recognition, fake videos and killer robots—we’re a few years into a new era that challenges our assumptions about how things work.

My last post provided examples of the extraordinary opportunities of this new era. Below is an outline of five of its remarkable new challenges.

1. Rise of synthetic content. A new report suggests that sophisbots, sophisticated online bots able to emulate human behavior and interact with us seamlessly, are running rampant on social media. That could be great for customer service, but a powerful weapon for those interested in spreading disinformation.  

A new site offers access to 100,000 pictures of synthetic people. That’s going to kill the stock photo business. Add AI written stories and you have fully synthetic news itemseven entire websites.

So-called ‘deep fake’ videos that circulated this past spring were simple overdubs. Recent advances in AI systems make it possible to generate fully synthetic video with constructed personalities.

All of these constructed content capabilities spell trouble for the 2020 election. “How we deal with the future of synthetic content will define the nature of 'truth' in society, which will ultimately define everything else,” said OpenAI’s Jack Clark.

2. Full surveillance society. The rapid increase in the number of cameras and drones in many places means a growing number of us are living in a full surveillance society. And with recent improvements in facial recognition, it’s pretty easy to track your movements. 

Protesters in Hong Kong began wearing facemasks to avoid facial recognition systems. Last week, in an emergency order, the government banned wearing facemasks for the purpose of avoiding recognition.

The City of San Diego uses a network of thousands of sensors installed on streetlights to collect data in an attempt to improve traffic and safety. Opponents recently called for the city to end its data collection in order to prevent police from using data and video to target certain populations. For similar reasons, the City of San Francisco banned the use of facial recognition by police and other city agencies. 

As more powerful AI and surveillance systems are developed, “there are going to be a multitude of conversations about how 'intelligent' we want our civil infrastructures to be, and what the potential constraints or controls are that we can place on them,” explained Clark.

3. Rise of killer robots. The pinpoint drone strike that interrupted half of Saudi oil production (and Aramco’s IPO) suggests that nothing and no one is safe with drones and autonomous weapons. With sophisticated drones being built and flown by high school students (see featured image), the movie War Games suddenly seems conceivable in real life. 

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots is an NGO formed to counter the threat of machines gone bad. The campaign, backed by Tesla’s Elon Musk and Alphabet’s Mustafa Suleyman, seeks to ban such machines—but it’s going to be hard to stay in front of this threat.

4. Income inequality. The longest economic expansion in U.S. history has made the rich richer. A big jump in 2018 created the largest income gaps in modern history. The AI-powered innovation economy is accelerating the aggregation of wealth to the biggest companies, and the richest people. This doesn’t end well. 

Anger about accelerating income gaps fueled the rise of populism, which resulted in a tax cut that made it worse. Increasing frustration will continue to collide with the climate crisis as low-income communities become the most impacted.

5. Unmanageable Complexity. Perhaps the most vexing and least recognized challenge of our time is the extraordinary complexity of natural and manmade systems, and their unexpected collisions. 

Cloud computing, massive data sets, and code that learns makes systems so complex that it requires live experiments and simple proxies to try to understand how they work—more plainly, people that manage complex systems don’t understand them. As a result, expect more unexpected consequences: more derived bias, more hacking, more compound events.

“The 21st century will be defined by our attempts to come up with the right learning systems to intelligently and scalably constrain the machines we have created, said Jack Clark.

Implications of the Innovation Age

In this new era, everyone is exposed to more risk—more upside (so it is easier to make a big difference) and more downside (with more threats and displacement). Everything is more complicated, requiring more humility and more design thinking (a structured problem-solving approach beginning with empathy research).

This new era requires new a new set of assumptions about how things work, along with new approaches to leadership, learning, and governance. Seven implications include:

1. Agility. These complex issues call for agile government—and public responses that reduce risks and share the benefits of new capabilities (see The Age of Agility from America Succeeds).

2. Sustainability. Given the increasing severity of the climate crisis, every person, organization, and community needs a sustainability agenda (including mitigation and adaptation). 

3. Support. We’re in for a period of unimaginable social and economic turbulence. It’s time for local and regional governments and philanthropies to double down on youth and family services. 

4. Learning Ecosystems. Every person, organization and region needs to get smart—to skill up, learn more and build new capacities faster than ever. In the long run, learning is the economic development agenda. New pathways to emerging employment opportunities (like the 25 business- and college-connected high schools in Dallas) are key to smart cities

5. Digital Literacy. The rise of ‘sophisbots’ and synthetic content demands that we learn and teach digital literacy and critical consumption starting in fourth and fifth grade (when many students receive their first smartphones).  

6. High School. High school education should be less about memorizing dates and formulas and more an introduction to the pressing issues of our time, and an invitation to contribute. Encountering complexity and seeking to make a difference on the local version of a global problem might be the best form of preparation.   

7. Facilities. Anyone planning new learning facilities should consider the anywhere, anytime learning opportunities afforded by viewing the city as the classroom and increasingly accessible transportation.  

Evidence of the new era is everywhere you turn. It’s time for politicians and corporate leaders to take the long view—that is, the inclusive view, the sustainable view. It’s time for community conversations that lead to better support services and learning opportunities for everyone. It is time to lean into the promise of the innovation age.

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A high school drone lab somewhere near you.

Tom Vander Ark

Facial recognition, fake videos and killer robots—we’re a few years into a new era that challenges our assumptions about how things work.

My last post provided examples of the extraordinary opportunities of this new era. Below is an outline of five of its remarkable new challenges.

1. Rise of synthetic content. A new report suggests that sophisbots, sophisticated online bots able to emulate human behavior and interact with us seamlessly, are running rampant on social media. That could be great for customer service, but a powerful weapon for those interested in spreading disinformation.  

A new site offers access to 100,000 pictures of synthetic people. That’s going to kill the stock photo business. Add AI written stories and you have fully synthetic news itemseven entire websites.

So-called ‘deep fake’ videos that circulated this past spring were simple overdubs. Recent advances in AI systems make it possible to generate fully synthetic video with constructed personalities.

All of these constructed content capabilities spell trouble for the 2020 election. “How we deal with the future of synthetic content will define the nature of 'truth' in society, which will ultimately define everything else,” said OpenAI’s Jack Clark.

2. Full surveillance society. The rapid increase in the number of cameras and drones in many places means a growing number of us are living in a full surveillance society. And with recent improvements in facial recognition, it’s pretty easy to track your movements. 

Protesters in Hong Kong began wearing facemasks to avoid facial recognition systems. Last week, in an emergency order, the government banned wearing facemasks for the purpose of avoiding recognition.

The City of San Diego uses a network of thousands of sensors installed on streetlights to collect data in an attempt to improve traffic and safety. Opponents recently called for the city to end its data collection in order to prevent police from using data and video to target certain populations. For similar reasons, the City of San Francisco banned the use of facial recognition by police and other city agencies. 

As more powerful AI and surveillance systems are developed, “there are going to be a multitude of conversations about how 'intelligent' we want our civil infrastructures to be, and what the potential constraints or controls are that we can place on them,” explained Clark.

3. Rise of killer robots. The pinpoint drone strike that interrupted half of Saudi oil production (and Aramco’s IPO) suggests that nothing and no one is safe with drones and autonomous weapons. With sophisticated drones being built and flown by high school students (see featured image), the movie War Games suddenly seems conceivable in real life. 

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots is an NGO formed to counter the threat of machines gone bad. The campaign, backed by Tesla’s Elon Musk and Alphabet’s Mustafa Suleyman, seeks to ban such machines—but it’s going to be hard to stay in front of this threat.

4. Income inequality. The longest economic expansion in U.S. history has made the rich richer. A big jump in 2018 created the largest income gaps in modern history. The AI-powered innovation economy is accelerating the aggregation of wealth to the biggest companies, and the richest people. This doesn’t end well. 

Anger about accelerating income gaps fueled the rise of populism, which resulted in a tax cut that made it worse. Increasing frustration will continue to collide with the climate crisis as low-income communities become the most impacted.

5. Unmanageable Complexity. Perhaps the most vexing and least recognized challenge of our time is the extraordinary complexity of natural and manmade systems, and their unexpected collisions. 

Cloud computing, massive data sets, and code that learns makes systems so complex that it requires live experiments and simple proxies to try to understand how they work—more plainly, people that manage complex systems don’t understand them. As a result, expect more unexpected consequences: more derived bias, more hacking, more compound events.

“The 21st century will be defined by our attempts to come up with the right learning systems to intelligently and scalably constrain the machines we have created, said Jack Clark.

Implications of the Innovation Age

In this new era, everyone is exposed to more risk—more upside (so it is easier to make a big difference) and more downside (with more threats and displacement). Everything is more complicated, requiring more humility and more design thinking (a structured problem-solving approach beginning with empathy research).

This new era requires new a new set of assumptions about how things work, along with new approaches to leadership, learning, and governance. Seven implications include:

1. Agility. These complex issues call for agile government—and public responses that reduce risks and share the benefits of new capabilities (see The Age of Agility from America Succeeds).

2. Sustainability. Given the increasing severity of the climate crisis, every person, organization, and community needs a sustainability agenda (including mitigation and adaptation). 

3. Support. We’re in for a period of unimaginable social and economic turbulence. It’s time for local and regional governments and philanthropies to double down on youth and family services. 

4. Learning Ecosystems. Every person, organization and region needs to get smart—to skill up, learn more and build new capacities faster than ever. In the long run, learning is the economic development agenda. New pathways to emerging employment opportunities (like the 25 business- and college-connected high schools in Dallas) are key to smart cities

5. Digital Literacy. The rise of ‘sophisbots’ and synthetic content demands that we learn and teach digital literacy and critical consumption starting in fourth and fifth grade (when many students receive their first smartphones).  

6. High School. High school education should be less about memorizing dates and formulas and more an introduction to the pressing issues of our time, and an invitation to contribute. Encountering complexity and seeking to make a difference on the local version of a global problem might be the best form of preparation.   

7. Facilities. Anyone planning new learning facilities should consider the anywhere, anytime learning opportunities afforded by viewing the city as the classroom and increasingly accessible transportation.  

Evidence of the new era is everywhere you turn. It’s time for politicians and corporate leaders to take the long view—that is, the inclusive view, the sustainable view. It’s time for community conversations that lead to better support services and learning opportunities for everyone. It is time to lean into the promise of the innovation age.

I am an advocate for innovations in learning. As CEO of Getting Smart, I advise school districts, networks, foundations and learning organizations on the path forward.

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