Blockchain to the Rescue: AI in a Post-Pandemic Dystopia

In my latest illustration entitled ‘Dystopian Future’, referencing that of ‘Cyberpunk 2077’ – showcasing Artificial Intelligence, Computer Science and Robotics.

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In this editorial, we take a look at a post-pandemic dystopia where AI and robotics engulf the flow of labour, talent and the economy. These are our forecasts of an economy optimised by artificial intelligence and ripened by robotics.

Robots’ infiltration of the workforce doesn’t occur at a steady, gradual pace. Instead, automation happens in bursts, concentrated especially in bad times such as the current Covid 19-induced economic paralysis, when humans become relatively more expensive as firms’ revenues rapidly decline. At these moments, employers shed less-skilled workers and replace them with technology and higher-skilled workers, which increases labor productivity as a recession tapers off.

Several economists have outlined this cyclical nature of automation. Nir Jaimovich of the University of Zurich and Henry E. Siu of the University of British Columbia reported that over three recessions in the last 30 years, a whopping 88% of job loss took place in “routine,” automatable occupations — meaning such jobs accounted for “essentially all” of the jobs lost in the crises. Brad J. Hershbein of the W.E. Upjohn Institute and Lisa B. Kahn of the University of Rochester looked at almost 100 million online job postings before and after the Great Recession and found that firms in hard-hit metro areas were steadily replacing workers who performed automatable “routine” tasks with a mix of technology and more skilled workers. So, even as robots replace workers during boom times at places such as Amazon and Walmart, their influx surges during recessions—not great news for the nation’s jittery workers.

Helping Humans Do Their Jobs

The cruel irony of the coronavirus pandemic is that medical professionals know better than anyone that social distancing is critical for slowing the rate of new infections, yet they’re forced to be the closest to the disease. And those that need social interaction perhaps more than anybody—the elderly—are the ones who need to isolate the most, since they’re the most susceptible to the disease.

But if machines can help care for patients, it’s less likely that human caregivers will themselves get infected. Autonomous robots, for instance, can roam rooms, disinfecting surfaces with UV light. Or they can deliver supplies, as a robot named Tug is already doing. Smarter AI can help diagnose people with Covid-19, and the article’s authors suggest that engineers might develop mobile robots to perform simple tasks like taking a patient’s temperature.

This could all go a long way to lightening the burden on human health care providers and helping them keep their distance from the infected. That could help stave off future bottlenecks, in which so many workers are ill or quarantined after potential exposure that hospital staff cannot adequately care for incoming patients. There’s plenty of precedent for machines helping humans do their jobs, notes MIT roboticist Kate Darling, who wasn’t involved in the editorial. “ATMs allowed banks to expand teller services,” she says. “Bomb disposal robots let soldiers keep more distance between themselves and danger. There are cases where automation will replace people, but the true potential of robotics is in supplementing our skills. We should stop trying to replace and start thinking more creatively about how to use technology to achieve our goals.”

It’s not hard to imagine a future in which delivery robots bring food and supplies to quarantined people’s homes, preventing delivery workers from potentially infecting them. Quarantined folks are already keeping in touch with friends and relatives via Zoom and FaceTime, but social robots could also keep people company in the absence of human peers. The telepresence robot, often something as simple as a screen on wheels, has begun appearing in nursing homes to help family members connect with otherwise isolated elders. In hospitals, such robots could “teleport” a specialist doctor in London to a patient in San Francisco.

The ‘Always On’ Organisation

One positive aspect in this area of the AI-enabled organisation is the realization that AI is making organizations much more responsive to their customer’s needs and desires. AI is making mass-customisation possible for many different industries by leveraging the power of machine learning-enabled hyperpersonalisation to tailor their offerings and build solutions customised for each individual customer, patient, client, or citizen. Through the use of conversational agents and autonomous systems, organisations are able to provide better customer service and better products and solutions to their customers by leveraging AI to churn through large quantities of data to build more accurate profiles of all of their customers. This impact can be felt even in the healthcare industry where AI is being used to provide personalised medicine and healthcare better tailored to individual patient needs.

Another benefit and change that AI brings is the “always-on organization”. With the use of conversational agents and autonomous bots, there’s very little reason for businesses to close. Even after the humans go home, bots are operating, providing both the expectation and the reality that users can do business at any time they choose. This is not only limited to ecommerce and purely digital operations. The AI-enabled future means 24-hr coffee shops that are fully automated, and banks that no longer operate on “bankers hours”. In the AI-enabled future, businesses simply don’t have hours of operation. They’re always in operation.

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“Dystopian Future (2020)” featuring Herbert Sim a.k.a. The Bitcoin Man, and Maria Khramtsova a.k.a. Cypherpunk Girl. The supercar is inspired by TRON and the latest TESLA CyberTruck.

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No More Tinder, AI Rules Romances of the Future

Imagine you are a woman in search of romance in this new world. You say, “Date,” and your Soulband glows; the personal AI assistant embedded on the band begins to work. The night before, your empathetic AI scoured the cloud for three possible dates. Now your Soulband projects a hi-def hologram of each one. It recommends No. 2, a poetry-loving master plumber with a smoky gaze. Yes, you say, and the AI goes off to meet the man’s avatar to decide on a restaurant and time for your real-life meeting. Perhaps your AI will also mention what kind of flowers you like, for future reference.

After years of experience, you’ve found that your AI is actually better at choosing men than you. It predicted you’d be happier if you divorced your husband, which turned out to be true. Once you made the decision to leave him, your AI negotiated with your soon-to-be ex-husband’s AI, wrote the divorce settlement, then “toured” a dozen apartments on the cloud before finding the right one for you to begin your single life.

But it’s not just love and real estate. Your AI helps with every aspect of your life. It remembers every conversation you ever had, every invention you ever sketched on a napkin, every business meeting you ever attended. It’s also familiar with millions of other people’s inventions—it has scanned patent filings going back hundreds of years—and it has read every business book written since Ben Franklin’s time.

When you bring up a new idea for your business, your AI instantly cross-references it with ideas that were introduced at a conference in Singapore or Dubai just minutes ago. It’s like having a team of geniuses—Einstein for physics, Steve Jobs for business—at your beck and call.

The AI remembers your favorite author, and at the mention of her last name, “Austen,” it connects you to a Chinese service that has spent a few hours reading everything Jane Austen wrote and has now managed to mimic her style so well that it can produce new novels indistinguishable from the old ones. You read a fresh Austen work every month, then spend hours talking to your AI about your favorite characters—and the AI’s. It’s not like having a best friend. It’s deeper than that.

Many people in the dystopian future do resist total dependence on their AIs, out of a desire to retain some autonomy. It’s possible to dial down the role AI plays in different functions: You can set your Soulband for romance at 55 percent, finance at 75 percent, health a full 100 percent. And there is even one system—call it a guardian-angel AI —that watches over your “best friend” to make sure the advice she’s offering you isn’t leading you to bad ends.

Human-Machine Interaction to Revolutionise

The novel coronavirus forces companies to more rapidly adopt automation and shift to the cloud. As fewer people control a larger number of robots, do we have the right tools and technologies to pass all the relevant information to that decision-maker promptly? Are there enough sensors on each robot to provide a full picture?

Today, we rely on tactile input like computers or tablets to control robots. Are these still the best interface as the amount of information soars and response time remains short? Should we reconsider human-machine interfaces that go beyond tactile, for example, voice, VR/AR or brain-machine interface?

We also need to decide who should be in control. As machines get smarter, should we always make the final call?

For example, who should be controlling an autonomous robotaxi? The car itself? The human safety driver? Someone who monitors a fleet of robotaxis remotely? The passengers? Under what situation? Or should it be a co-decision with weighted judgment by both humans and machines? What’s the ethical implication? Can the interface support multi-step co-decision making?

Ultimately, how do we design human-centered AI to make sure autonomous machines make our lives better, not worse? How do we automate the right use cases to augment humans? How do we build a hybrid team that delivers better outcomes and allows humans and machines to learn from each other?

More Resistance Towards Data Mining

As a global citizen, imagine that you’ve opted out of the AI revolution. Yes, there are full-AI zones in the dystopian future, where people collect healthy UBIs and spend their time making movies, volunteering and traveling the far corners of the earth. But, as dazzling as a superintelligent world seems, other communities will reject it. There will be Christian, Muslim and Orthodox Jewish districts in cities such as Lagos and Phoenix and Jerusalem, places where people live in a time before AI, where they drive their cars and allow for the occasional spurt of violence, things almost unknown in the full AI zones. The residents of these districts retain their faith and, they say, a richer sense of life’s meaning.

Life is hard, though. Since the residents don’t contribute their data to the AI companies, their monthly UBI is a pittance. Life spans are half or less of those in the full-AI zones. “Crossers” move back and forth over the borders of these worlds regularly. Some of them are hackers, members of powerful gangs who steal proprietary algorithms from AI systems, then dash back over the border before security forces can find them. Others are smugglers bringing medicine to religious families who want to live away from AI, but also want to save their children from leukemia.

Others flee because they don’t trust the machines. Even the most advanced full-AI zones, in places like China and the United States, will be vulnerable.

But the most unanticipated result of the singularity may be a population imbalance, driven by low birth rates in the full-AI zones and higher rates elsewhere. It may be that the new technologies will draw enough crossers to the full-AI side to even up the numbers, or that test-tube babies will become the norm among those living with AI. But if they don’t, the singularity will have ushered in a delicious irony: For most humans, the future could look more like Witness than it does like Blade Runner.

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In the “Dystopian Future (2020)”, it’s all about Decentralization, Cryptocurrency, Blockchain Technology, and of course — Artificial Intelligence, Computer Science and Robotics.

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AI Dominates the Future of Geopolitics and Nations

Imagine that, in the dystopian future, AIs help run nation-states. Countries that have adopted AI-assisted governments are thriving. Nigeria and Malaysia let AIs vote on behalf of their owners, and they’ve seen corruption and mismanagement wither away. In just a few years, citizens have grown to trust AIs to advise their leaders on the best path for the economy, the right number of soldiers to defend them. Treaties are negotiated by AIs trained on diplomatic data sets.

In Lagos, “civil rights” drones fly over police pods as they race to the scene of a crime—one AI watching over another AI, for the protection of humankind. Each police station in Lagos or Kuala Lumpur has its own lie-detector AI that is completely infallible, making crooked cops a thing of the past. Hovering over the bridges in Kuala Lumpur are “psych drones” that watch for suicidal jumpers. Rather than evolving into the dreaded Skynet of the Terminator movies, superintelligent machines are friendly and curious about us.

But imagine that you are the citizen of a totalitarian country like North Korea. As such, you are deeply versed in the dark side of AI. Camps for political prisoners are a thing of the past. Physical confinement is beside the point. The police already know your criminal history, your DNA makeup and your sexual preferences. Surveillance drones can track your every move. Your Soulband records every conversation you have, as well as your biometric response to anti-government ads it flashes across your video screen at unexpected moments, purely as a test.

Privacy died around by the time 2050 arrived. It’s impossible to tell what is true and what isn’t. When the government owns the AI, it can hack into every part of your existence. The calls you receive could be your Aunt Jackie phoning to chat about the weather or a state bot wanting to plumb your true thoughts about the Great Leader.

And that’s not the bleakest outcome. Imagine that the nation’s leaders long ago figured out that the only real threat to their rule was their citizens—always trying to escape, always hacking at the AI, always needing to be fed. Much better to rule over a nation of human emulations, or “ems.” That’s what remains after political prisoners are “recommissioned”—once they are executed, their brains are removed and scanned by the AI until it has stored a virtual copy of their minds.

AI-enabled holograms allow these ems to “walk” the streets of the nation’s capital and to “shop” at stores that are, in reality, completely empty. These simulacra have a purpose, however: They register on the spy satellites that the regime’s enemies keep orbiting overhead, and they maintain the appearance of normality. Meanwhile, the rulers earn billions by leasing the data from the “ems” to Chinese AI companies, who believe the information is coming from real people.

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