Being More Human

Intel'’s resident futurist on how the steampunk culture offers clues to building a better tomorrow

Easter weekend 2011, I was at the bar of the Doubletree Hotel at Sea-Tac Airport watching a parade of sorts: a six-foot-tall man in a pink tutu was followed by a gaggle of Victorian ladies; one had a small stuffed animal squid crawling across the bodice of her immaculately tailored dress. In quick succession followed two wizards, a Star Wars stormtrooper, and a tall, slender, androgynous figure painted completely white, wearing elf ears and very little else.

This was Norwescon, one of the oldest science fiction and fantasy conventions on the West Coast, a heady mix of geek-out and in-depth intellectual debates. The convention not only has a famous writer and illustrator as guests of honor but also a guest scientist. Run by an army of loyal and energetic volunteers, the convention is one of the most open and accepting you'll ever see. Everyone is welcome and nothing is strange.

As Intel's resident futurist, being at a convention like this is part of my job. I'm charged with figuring out what people will want to do with technology a decade from now. It takes about that long—ten years—to design, develop, manufacture, and distribute the computational power that goes into computers, smartphones, and the Internet. I use a mix of social science, technical research, statistical data, economic forecasts, and even science fiction. I'm always looking for new ways to explore and investigate how people use and relate to technology. I work with teams of anthropologists and ethnographers who fan out all over the world and study people. They don't study markets or countries: they study real people. They live with them, shop with them, and get a deep understanding of their lives so we can figure out how technology can make people's lives more efficient, healthier, and more productive.

This exploration of humans and their relationship with technology sends me far from Intel's cubicles. I often travel outside of the United States in search of diverse viewpoints. People in my lab call it futurehunting. Once I've developed a vision for the future, I hit the road and talk to people in governments, militaries, universities, and corporations. I meet with anyone who has an opinion, fear, or dream for the future. I look for the future in a dark control room of a Bollywood musical comedy show in Mumbai or in a basement server room of Stockholm's powerful public television station. I am a big believer in Canadian science fiction writer William Gibson's statement: “The future is already here. It's just not very evenly distributed.”

Global futurehunting led me to the Doubletree Hotel in Washington in search of steampunk. Steampunk is a subculture, an aesthetic, and an art movement that looks back at the Victorian era and wonders what it would have been like if we had information-age technology in the age of steam. It's the science fiction of a past that never happened. Steampunk can be found in fashion, movies, books, art, music, and even politics (this particularly interesting part of the subculture seeks to include people who had previously been excluded in the real Victoriana).

Cultural historian James H. Carrott met me at Norwescon so we could continue our research on steampunk culture and the future of technology. Like any good subculture, steampunk gives early indications of changes in our larger pop culture. Steampunk radically reimagines what people wanted from their technology. It explores new ways of interacting with the devices that have become integral to our lives. When you grow up with a smartphone in your pocket you have extremely different expectations of how that technology is knitted into your life. You expect more from it.

For decades technology was separate from humans, was something “other.” It's easy to see why. From the beginning, computers sat apart from us. They were in the next room or in the basement of a massive university or government building. Even as the technology got more advanced, the computer was something that sat on the desk at work or in the den. But as the decades continued, computing moved from that separate room to our pockets. Computers became something we carried. We now keep our smartphones on our nightstands. Our children have never known a time before the Internet, much less a time of screens they couldn't control. Our devices and our technology are now an intricate part of our lives. We love and depend on them. They make our lives better. They connect us to the people we love. They keep us company. They make us healthier. And, quite possibly, they allow us to be more human.

As James and I sat in the hotel bar talking about cultural change and technology, we watched the parade of steampunks strolling by in their Victorian technological splendor. We could see these folks physically working out a new relationship with technology. It's evident in the fashion, the gears, the top hats and goggles, and in the devices and art they created. As a cultural movement, steampunk isn't antitechnology; steampunk loves technology. Almost every steampunk you meet will tell you she loves her smartphone and the Internet is an integral part of her culture.

Steampunks, however, are exploring a different relationship with technology. By putting gears and levers on their smartphones, they are implying that they understand the technology, and, if needed, they could repair their smartphones. Even if they know they couldn't actually fix this incredibly complex piece of technology, the gears and levers make them feel as if they could. That's the important cultural aspect of steampunk. It's making real the cultural feelings and aspirations that we have for these crucial technologies.

Steampunk has emotion and passion; it has an opinion and a point of view. It is sassy and thoughtful and optimistic about what could be built. It is convinced we can build a better future by envisioning a different past. Steampunk shows us that people want the devices and the technology in their lives to have a sense of humor, history, and humanity. This desire has radical implications for the type of future we could build.

Steampunk reveals three relationships that people want with their technology. First, they want their technology to have a sense of humor. Humor and jokes give us a way to connect with and understand each other. Also, humor is a great cultural indicator that we understand each other. Studies show that if I can make you laugh, you not only think I'm smarter but also feel a deeper human connection to me. If we want to have a closer relationship to these technologies that are filling our lives, it makes sense that we would want them to get our sense of humor and make us laugh.

Second, people want their technology to have a sense of history. History is the on-ramp to the future. Only by understanding where we have come from can we make sense of where we are going. It might surprise you to realize that a pocket watch is a lot like an iPhone. We carry both around in our pockets. Both give their owners an advantage over other people who may not have them. But there is one difference: a pocket watch was designed to be handed down from generation to generation. An iPhone is designed to be refreshed from generation to generation. For an increasing number of people this doesn't work. They want their devices to have grounding in history, a connection to the past so we can have a clearer view of our future.

Finally, people want their technology to have a sense of humanity. They want their devices to understand them as individuals. If you sleep with your smartphone next to your bed you want it to know who you are when you wake up in the morning. As our devices become increasingly smarter and central to our lives, we want these devices to understand us as individuals, not as consumers.

I'm currently working on Intel's 2019 platform. And in this work, we are seeing something amazing being developed. Gadi Singer, one of my colleagues, explained that as we near the year 2020, the size of meaningful computational power will approach zero. Wow! That means that the size of the chip, the size of the computational intelligence, will become so small that it will be nearly invisible.

This changes everything in the best way. When the size of meaningful computational power approaches zero, it means that when we think about what we can build we need to ask ourselves a new set of questions. For decades we asked ourselves, Can we do something? Can we turn a workstation into a desktop? Can we get a computer small enough to fit in your lap? Can we get a laptop small enough to fit in your pocket? But as we near 2020, something different will happen. When computational power approaches zero, we will be able to turn anything into a computer. We can put computer intelligence into a water glass or your shirt or even your body. We no longer will ask ourselves: Can we do it? We will ask ourselves: What do we want to do?

This is where futurehunting comes in. Technology, data, and other advancements are meaningless until they touch and improve people's lives. When we are building the hardware, software, and services that will become a part of our daily lives, we can apply this principle of making lives better. In practice, these could encompass simple and dramatic improvements. Simple: imagine if your email could do more than just allow you to send electronic messages via the Internet. What if it knew who you liked and who you didn't want to hear from? What if it gently nudged you to send that reply you had forgotten about? What if it stopped everything else you were doing when a loved one emailed and needed your help? In short, imagine if your technology knew you and treated you accordingly.

In more dramatic examples, the U.S. military is using smartphones to help treat service members and veterans who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. One of the unique problems with PTSD is that it's hard to treat because family members and healthcare professionals can't be with the service member or veteran all the time. But a smartphone with the appropriate app can provide certain therapy treatments as an auxiliary to traditional therapy.

Your smartphone knows more about you than you closet friend or partner. It knows where you are at all times. It knows who you are talking to. It knows the websites you've been visiting and even the music you've been listening to. This might sound a bit too scary for most people, but for the family members and doctors trying to help people with PTSD, it's a wealth of information. If the soldier begins to get depressed or has started to become uncommunicative, the system could reach out to family members to check in on them. The technology could even bring in the healthcare professionals before the soldier's condition worsens.

When we are surrounded by computational intelligence whose only goal is to make our lives better, connect us to our loved ones, and make us healthier, more sustainable, and more efficient, we have crossed a line. It's one I've wanted to cross for years. Technology and the things we build will become part of us. The things we build are a product of humanity, and because of that they are filled with our hopes, dreams, and aspirations. Technology is not a cold, dead thing separate from us. It is a living, breathing extension of who we are as people. If we think of technology in this way then we can design it to help us be more human.

If we make technology more human, we can ask ourselves who we want to be and who we want our children to become. We can extend our humanity into our technology for good purposes. We will then be surrounded by technology that amplifies our humanity and connects us.

This is not some theoretical discussion. I'm not an academic. I'm a principal engineer at Intel: a designer and a builder. I measure my success not by the ideas and visions I have but by the things I build. To build technologies that make us more human, we need the designers to have a deeper understanding of what it means to be human and how their products will affect the lives of people across the planet. This is why social scientists, ethnographers, and anthropologists need to work with engineers and designers. There's no divide between creativity and science. But it is a choice that we need to make. We must infuse humanity into the technology we develop, the business we conduct, and the science we explore.

I feel an incredible sense of responsibility for the work that I do. Our futurecasting work will touch the lives of nearly every person on the planet. It's not something we can shy away from. How do we build a better future?

Following Norwescon, I spent the next year traveling all over the world talking to scientists, science fiction authors, experts, and luminaries asking these questions: How do we build a better future? How do we change the future? I was surprised by how many people were upset by this second question. How dare I presume anyone could affect the future? The future is too vast and complicated. Yes, I replied, but someone has to do it. The future is made every day by the actions of people, so what are we going to do?

In London, at the end of my search, I found an answer to my question. I was talking with activist and science fiction author Cory Doctorow, and we hit upon a simple yet powerful idea: We can change the future by changing the story people tell themselves about the future they will live in. It's an incredibly powerful thing. If we can capture people's imaginations and give them new visions and better narratives about the future, then that future will change. Every amazing accomplishment by humans began in our imaginations. It was only once we had envisioned it that we could actually make it so.

I am an optimist. I think the future is going to be awesome. When I tell people I'm a futurist and an optimist, they seem surprised and amused. People expect all futurists to be pessimistic prophets of doom. I'm not like that. The future is going to be awesome because we are going to build it. The future is not some fixed point on the horizon that we are all helplessly hurtling toward. Quite the opposite: the future is made every day by people's actions. We all, on some level, create the future. From the family we raise, to the community we live in, to the business we do, we build the future. We all need to be active participants in imagining the future: the one we want and the one we want to avoid. Then we need to do something about it. Sitting with James on Easter weekend at the Doubletree, we could see this energy in the parade of conventioneers. These people were active, imagining and building the future they wanted. And some were building the history they wanted to be from. This is what studying steampunk culture taught us. We can't just sit back and let the future happen. It's ours to build.

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