Brooke speaks with futurist and io9 contributing editor George Dvorsky about the 2014 breakthroughs in science, technology and culture that seem right out of a sci-fi novel.
Song: "Main Title" from the film "Ragtime" by Randy Newman
BROOKE: After considering the biggest bloopers of 2014, we thought we 'd end with a palate cleanser, this year’s most futuristic breakthroughs. Like Doc and Marty McFly in “Back to the Future II,” we’ve finally landed at 2015.
McFly: Hey hey, hey hey! Stop! Little girl, little girl, stop! Look. I need to borrow your… hover-board?
BROOKE: We don’t yet have hover-boards. But some of the film’s predictions came early. Like glasses with built-in phones, which went on the market in May last year as Google Glass. George Dvorsky, a contributing editor io9 and director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, has peered into the past year to find the most futuristic predictions that became reality.
DVORSKY: Number one on my list: the first ever successful demonstration of mind-to-mind communication between humans. The two individuals involved - one was in India, and one was France. And the words that were transmitted between the two of them included, 'Hola', for example.
BROOKE: So they said 'hello' to each other using a cap, brain-to-brain, and nothing else.
DVORSKY: It used trans-cranial direct stimulation in the brain to light-up the person's peripheral vision - they would literally see spots in their peripheral vision and these spots of light would indicate to them a numerical sequence. And using that numerical sequence they were able to decode the binary to come up with the messages that were being sent to them.
BROOKE: So basically they were given a code.
DVORSKY: But they did manage to decode it strictly by looking at the flashing of the lights in the peripheral vision of their eyes. We are much heading to this space where we can in fact communicate with each other in a non-verbal way. Where that will lead us as a civilization and as individual humans is hard to predict. But one thing is, I think, pretty clear that, again, the immediacy of communication - the levels of intimacy between each other, the ability to collaborate quickly and rapidly and across vast distances will certainly, I think, change the fabric of how we interact with each other.
BROOKE: And as a futurist you don't find this in anyway creepy?
DVORSKY: (Laughs) One thing that worries me is the inability, for example, to detach from such a system. And in fact one of the items that I did not put on the list this year but I think it really did belong on the list -- this was the first year where Google Glass addiction was actually diagnosed as a disorder and it was actually treated by military personnel on an American citizen. He was quite habitually using his Google Glass. He had to remove it for medical reasons. He would fixate on it and kept trying to reach for it with his fingers to try turn it on and would talk to it. He even had dreams that he was wearing it. And they treated it as if he had any kind of internet addiction disorder.
BROOKE: I was really surprised when I read that an artificial intelligence was elected to the board of a Hong Kong company. Was that for real? Or just a publicity stunt. Would the A.I. have voting rights?
DVORSKY: Yes the A.I. would in fact have voting rights. It is a full and equal member - a proportional member - on their board of directors. It's a venture capital firm. What this is - it's a machine learning program that's very, very capable of analyzing incredibly massive data sets. And then also using various calculations to come up with proposals for what it thinks the company should invest in. Some people thought this was a bit of a publicity stunt. And that may be so. But personally I did see it as a kind of precursor for other kinds of ways that artificial intelligence will start to make its way into the upper echelons of both companies, governments, and even potentially the military.
BROOKE: Speaking of robots intruding into the board rooms or maybe the military - this year researchers at something called the Open Worm Project uploaded the brain of a worm to a robot. I've seen the video you've posted. It just kind of looks like the robot is banging against the wall. What's the significance of it?
DVORSKY: So this is the idea that the brain is kind of a functional machine, if you will, that can both exist both in a biological way but it can also exist in a digital way.
BROOKE: There are many who believe that you couldn't do that with, say, a human brain because of its experiences that are built up, the intuition that comes into play. It's responses can't be translated into digits.
DVORSKY: I'm quite skeptical that we can synthesize consciousness in a machine. I believe there is something going on in the physical world that is what gives rise to consciousness. My opinion, by the way, is in the extreme minority. What I think we'll eventually do is we'll created hybrid systems for uploading. So I think we're going to be talking about hybrid biological and digital systems where human beings will for the most part be in computer but there might have to be certain functions that can't be completely resident inside of it.
BROOKE: So relate this to the nematode brain in the robot. What does that portend?
DVORSKY: Sure. They're not finished yet mapping the brain of a nematode worm, but what they did do is they created a software program that reflects how a nematode worm navigates throughout the world. 'Should it reach an object, what does it do?' - that was the information that was uploaded into a Lego Mindstorms robot and according to researchers it did not move in a chaotic, haphazard way. When it did reach a wall or some kind of obstacle it moved in pretty much the same way you would have expected a nematode worm to work. So is it true uploading of a worm into a robot? No, not quite. Is it a portent of something maybe more substantive down the line? I think absolutely. It's one of the first steps I have ever seen that could be considered a form of upload of a biological system into a digital one.
BROOKE: Another potential biomedical breakthrough: scientists built an artificial chromosome from scratch.
DVORSKY: Yes, and this was a project that was about 10 years in the making. They created a very lean and mean version of a yeast chromosome, albeit a synthetic one. And they put it to use in an actual organism and wouldn't you know it -- it actually worked. The yeast actually functioned fine with a synthetic chromosome that was made in a laboratory. What was also quite remarkable about this particular breakthrough was the researchers also managed to create a kind of synthetic chromosome that is modifiable. It has the ability, for example, for the geneticists to switch some of the functions on and off and to even add certain functions in the future. So what this means is that we can start to create, for example, better medicines. Better delivery mechanisms for medicines in particular. But also a way to now even think about how we might translate this particular technology to the human chromosome. Although I would say that particular breakthrough will await us in the distant future. But eventually we'll be able to do similar things in terms of tweaking the human chromosome. To give us new functions or to improve our health and so on and so forth.
BROOKE: New functions?
DVORSKY: Dr. Gregory Stock, for example, has speculated that we could give ourselves ultraviolet vision or even the capacity to see in the dark. Or for example to have built in immunities to pathogens like HIV aids or ebola or what have you. Built in vaccinations at a genetic level. That's the power of artificial chromosomes. That was the breakthrough this year as it pertained to yeast. An important proof of concept that shows, look we can in fact create these things in a lab, put it in a functional organism, watch it work, then externally continue to modify and shape it as we see fit.
BROOKE: But can you get the political and religious and cultural establishments to accept it?
DVORSKY: That is certainly an open question. We have to then decide collectively what's in our best interests.
BROOKE: So speaking of social conundra, some of the breakthroughs were not, strictly speaking technological at all. The introduction in North America of genderless pronouns. Would you spell them?
DVORSKY: Sure. Well, it's spelled Xe, Xem, Xyr and it's pronounce Ze, Zen and Zeer. And that's what you would say when I gendered pronoun like 'he' or 'she' or 'him' or 'her' is deemed inappropriate. This has been done in Sweden by the way and in this particular instance it was the Vancouver school board that introduced these genderless pronouns. And the idea is, lets say for example that you have transgendered people or inter-sex people or anyone who simply wishes to not be identified strictly according to their sex to have these pronouns used. That's definitely been a staple in science fiction, by the way. Science fiction writers for years have kind of imagined future humans as being amorphic as it comes to their gender. Or even having multiple genders or new genders altogether. And have wondered how that would alter languge. So not only is this, I think, a step forward in terms of our appreciation and respect for, let's say, trans people or inter-sex people but it also shows how our language continues to evolve.
BROOKE: If you were going to sum up the breakthroughs of 2014 and what it told us about the kind of future we were heading into - how would you put it?
DVORSKY: I would say that 2014 was a potent reminder that many of the visions that we have in our science fiction is in fact happening. That we are very much heading into a world in which artificial intelligence will supplant human decision making. Where our biomedical technologies are going to continue to help enable the disabled - help us deal with diseases we weren't able to deal with before, and to extend life in ways we hadn't imagined.
BROOKE: Where are the big risks that you see in the breakthroughs of 2014?
DVORSKY: A number of leading thinkers have warned that we are heading down a very dangerous path as we continue to develop more and more powerful artificial intelligence. And the fear is that eventually these decision making machines will start to make mistakes in ways that will harm us quite badly. These things will be very narrow dedicated systems that will have more power over the environment than humans do and can change things quicker than we're going to be able to react to them.
BROOKE: Speaking of which - another breakthrough you noted was that a computer solved a math problem that was so complicated that human mathematicians couldn't check it.
DVORSKY: It was the long standing Erdős Discrepancy Problem. And what the computer did was that it apparently -- and again it was difficult for us to know because the answer was too long for us to check. In fact, the study authors claim that the answer was longer than all of the pages of Wikipedia combined. So, the computer could have been completely wrong. It may have been completly right. But unfortunately there isn't anybody right now who has the wherewithal to check if that is in fact the answer to this particular mathematical problem.
BROOKE: George, thank you very much.
DVORSKY: You're very, very welcome.
BROOKE: George Dvorsky is a contributing editor to io9 and director the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. You can go to io9 and see his article 'The Most Futuristic Predictions That Came True in 2014.'