Episode 138 - Holy Future, Batman!
Published January 20, 2015
SPECIAL GUESTS: Ted Kupper/Jon Perry (from Review The Future). Change. It's all around us. Everything and anything is changing right before our eyes, faster than ever before. Joining us on this episode are co-hosts Ted Kupper and Jon Perry of the podcast Review The Future, to dig into some of the trends and tropes that are the symptoms and causes of these changes. From VR games and movies to robots to science fiction and accelerating change itself, let's dig into these amazing trends. Recorded 1/15/2014.
You can download the episode here.
Mike & Matt's Recommended Reading:
Review The Future site
Review The Future Episode 1 - Is Technological Progress Accelerating?
Review The Future Episode 2 - Should We Be Worried About Technological Unemployment?
Review The Future Episode 3 - Is Privacy Dead?
Ted Kupper (on Twitter)
Ted Kupper (on Google+)
Jon Perry (on Twitter)
Jon Perry (on Google+)
Magic Leap site
How Magic Leap Is Secretly Creating A New Alternate Reality, by Sean Hollister (Gizmodo, 11/19/2014)
The Synthesis Of Imagination, a talk by Rony Abovitz and Magic Leap (TEDxSaratoga)
Oculus Rift site
More coming soon...
Alpha: Welcome to another episode of Robot Overlordz, episode #138. On the show, we take a look at how society is changing, everything from pop culture reviews to political commentary, technology trends to social norms, all in under 30 minutes, every Tuesday and Thursday.
Mike Johnston: I’m Mike Johnston.
Matt Bolton: And I’m Matt Bolton.
MJ: And tonight, joining us on this episode of Robot Overlordz are Ted Kupper and Jon Perry from the Review The future podcast.
Jon Perry: How are you doing?
Ted Kupper: Hi, thanks for having us.
MJ: To start off, could you tell us a little bit about your guys’ show and how you got started doing podcasts?
JP: Well, we started with a blog that was called Decline of Scarcity, and it turned out that doing a blog and writing it well is a lot of work, and we had a lot to say and it was a lot easier to verbalize that than to craft prose, so we switched to a podcast.
TK: Yeah, and last year we did it weekly, so we ended up doing about 30 of them last year in our first year, and that workload was pretty extreme, so we’ve recently gone to bi-weekly. We’ve also been monkeying with the format, so now where we used to just sort of discuss things with the two of us, we kind of take one topic a week and just try to exhaust the idea of it, get through all the main points in one futuristic or future technology topic, now we’re trying to do the same thing but also with having a guest pretty much every week. So, we’re trying to reach out into the community and bring some interesting voices in from everywhere else, other podcasts, but also people who don’t necessarily do podcasts and aren’t in that world.
JP: Well, I guess we should just setup what it’s about. Some of it might be obvious--it’s called Review The Future, it’s got “future” right there in the title, and it’s all about futurism and both actual speculative futurism about what we think is happening to society, but that also sometimes turns into a discussion of science fiction topics as well.
TK: Right, that line is blurry.
JP: It is blurry.
TK: We embrace that and talk about both things. But when we talk about science fiction, we tend to approach it from the point of view of “How good is the speculation?” rather than “How good is the art?” which is a different and harder question that we don’t want to get involved with. When we talk about these futurist things, we try to stick to “What can we, with some certainty, expect?”
JP: What seems like a reasonable extrapolation from where things are going?
TK: Like plausibility, minimum plausibility. Those are the kinds of things that we’re mostly interested in.
MJ: In terms of trends that you guys are looking at, what are some of the big ones that really stick out to you that are maybe on the horizon and are maybe a little closer or maybe a little further out?
JP: I think our first three episodes kind of establish three of the big things that we think about a lot--not the only things we think about, but. The first episode was about this idea of accelerating change and how technology is changing things perhaps faster and faster.
TK: Right, that’s the mega-trend that we definitely feel like we see everywhere, and it kind of drives all the other things that we want to talk about. So, that’s a big one.
JP: Just the idea that the changes we might have in the next ten years might be a bit more than you would think, just taking a linear perspective.
TK: Yeah, they’re hard for you to extrapolate well.
JP: And then the second episode was about technological unemployment, which was a big topic on our blog.
TK: Yeah, and that’s something that we worry about a lot, which is basically this idea that there might be a gap between the speed with which technology takes away old categories of job and the eventual goods that that technology brings having a ripple effect in the economy, and that that gap could be significant and long and be terrible for people, and that we might need to do something about that as a society. That’s something we talk about a lot and we’re pretty interested in dealing with that before it becomes a crisis as opposed to after.
JP: Right, and the third episode that we did I think was about privacy, and that’s obviously a hot topic just in society in general right now. But we’re really interested in the trends there and our general thesis on that is that privacy is pretty aggressively being eroded with no end in sight.
TK: Yeah, and the whole concept is probably going out the window, and there’s probably good and bad to that, but there’s ways to make it less bad that we should embrace.
JP: To clarify that a little bit: we kind of talked a little bit on our podcast about two types or privacy. So, there’s the privacy of your diary that you keep in a drawer in your room that’s sort of like the privacy of your personal property and space. But then there’s also the privacy and anonymity of being in a big city or in a big world in general and people not noticing every single thing that you do. The second thing is going to be obliterated I think in the next ten years.
TK: Yeah, that was just kind of an accident of history in the first place, and that’s over.
JP: I figure if people want to Google what you did on a saturday night ten years from now, it’s not going to be hard to come up with a picture of it probably.
TK: It will be trivially easy.
JP: But the privacy that’s more calculated, that’s like your diary where you keep stuff, that you can protect but it’s going to be harder and harder.
TK: Well, it’s going to be weirder and weirder for you to do it socially. People are going to know when you’re being private because you’ve turned on “Do Not Track Mode” and you’ve gone off the map.
JP: That’s true, there are times when having a dark spot on the map calls more attention to itself than you would want.
TK: Right. So, I don’t know, it’s interesting to speculate on what the societal reactions to that might be and what the utility of de facto privacy actually is, because that’s I don’t think maybe an easy question to unpack.
JP: But yeah, accelerating change, technological unemployment, privacy, and there’s other ones.
TK: Well, and you also mentioned in the question what we think is coming sooner rather than later--I think the thing that I’ve been convinced recently is coming the soonest is the VR revolution, and it was mostly from our guest Jason Ganz, who went on at great length about some really amazing things happening in VR, including this Magic Leap fiber optic eye-painting glasses thing that sounds totally bonkers.
JP: Why don’t you explain that, because that is fascinating.
TK: Okay, so apparently, and I just learned about this recently from one of our own podcasts, there’s a company down in Florida that’s called Magic Leap that’s got a technology that’s like a fiber optic wire that shoots light into your eye. The video on their website is like you’re looking down in your hands and there’s an angel in your hands. It’s bonkers. They’re calling it “cinematic reality” and it’s like an an alternative to Google Glass that you’d actually want. I’m shocked that this is something that is happening now; it seems like it’s something that should happen eventually, but it seems so fast.
JP: Well, it’s rather secretive, but it is attracting a lot of funding, so at least some people with money think it’s working.
TK: Google put a ton of money into it, and I think Yahoo and a bunch of other piles of money are invested in this thing. So, maybe it’s all vaporware and we’re just getting excited over nothing, but if it turns out to be true, there might be a massive AR revolution right around the corner, and there’s almost certainly a massive VR revolution right around the corner--the Oculus Rift is for real. Those things, I think, are going to be huge, and they’re going to be cell phone-sized, they’re going to be like paradigm shifts that change everything.
MJ: I think VR is one of those trends that we’re certainly watching. I’d heard of Magic Leap and I actually had thought at one point that Google bought them but I think they did just put some money in. Have you guys seen the TEDtalk from the main guy from Magic Leap? It’s one of the weirdest TEDtalks I think I’ve ever seen. I think it’s actually a TEDx talk.
TK: No, I haven’t seen that. what is that like?
MJ: It’s outright surreal. I think he comes out in like a spacesuit and there’s all this just weird creatures, I think there’s somebody in a bear costume. Really, it’s outright surreal.
JP: Some of this gives a little bit of pause because it has a little bit of this air of charlatan--like even their website, like Ted was describing, with the fairy in the hands… I mean, I think it’s seriously because of the funding it’s getting, but, you know.
TK: Yeah, who knows if it’s real. But it sounds just crazy if it is.
MJ: Well, and we’ve been waiting for VR--almost since as long as I can remember, there’s been science fiction that has speculated about it--but I remember in the ‘90s thinking we were almost going to get it and it just went nowhere. Like you guys said, the Oculus Rift seems like it’s almost here, it’s so close you can almost taste it. I’ve told Matt a couple of times, I have to restrain myself from being the development kit because I’m waiting for it to be consumer-ready. It seems like it’s right around the corner.
MB: I kept thinking it was going to be here a lot sooner to because I can remember back in probably the early to mid-’90s going to Dave and Buster’s and actually they had a VR setup there where you could stand in this thing and they put these gloves on you and all this stuff. So, it seemed like it was going to be real, real close at that point and then it just kind of faded away and now it seems to be coming back again. I think it’s going to really take off faster than a lot of people think it’s going to.
JP: Yeah. Our guest that we had, Jason Ganz, was claiming that he thought the next consumer-ready version of the Oculus would be on the market in time for Christmas 2015.
TK: Yeah, at $300 apparently, right?
JP: Well, with Facebook underwriting them, they can lose money on it.
TK: Yeah, so if that’s really true--again, maybe these are all rumors--but if that really comes to pass, that I think constitutes a revolution. I think that will see cell phone-style adoption--just massive, massive buyout.
JP: Although one thing I sort of speculate about with the VR technology is that it doesn’t work the same for everybody, it’s pretty subjective. Some people experience this deep presence pretty easily of being in another world, and for some people it just makes them sick. I wonder if there’s going to be a little bit of a division, where it’s like some people just kind of get it and some people don’t, almost like a big scale version of that stupid Magic Eye fad for awhile.
MB: It’s probably going to be like 3D then, in the theaters, because there are a lot of people--3D gives me a headache. I would actually pay more to not see it.
TK: That’s interesting. That might be the case. I think it also might be similar to the split that exists now between people who are gamers and people who aren’t. It still, to me, seems like its primary function is as an extension of game systems.
JP: Our guest, Jason, didn’t agree with that, and I don’t know if I agree with that because once you put other people in the space with you--yes, you can use that for gaming, but, I don’t know, that could be anything.
TK: That’s already a huge market. Don’t get me wrong, that’s still a lot of people. But I feel like those are the people who will get it first and like it the most.
MB: The other thing too, I just read an article about this, that it’s going to take off a lot in movies just because it immerses you more than sitting in front of a screen, plus it eliminates the need to keep buying bigger and bigger TVs because you just put this thing on for $250-$300 and you don’t have to go out and buy a 90-inch TV. This thing just fits over your head and that takes care of the problem.
TK: Yeah, the idea of it replacing big screen TVs, because it can actually be the equivalent of a cinema-sized TV that you’re seeing, is really quite cool. I guess they have problems with people looking at them for long periods of time because it screws with your focal depth because the screen is actually close to you, so they have to figure that out, that’s a technical challenge. But there’s more than one way to maybe “skin that cat.” So, eventually they might just replace TVs for people, especially for people who live in small apartments.
JP: Well, and that’s the thing--because I love unrestrained extrapolation, I like to think about the fact that getting rid of the big screen TV is maybe one step. If you really could come home and be in a gigantic, beautiful, lush forest or something, how much do you need a big apartment? It could affect the type of real estate that people want to buy. It might make a smaller living space more palatable--in the same way that you don’t need to take up a whole wall with a big screen TV to get that experience, you might actually need less room for some of the things that you do.
MJ: I’ve seen a lot of speculation about the interface for it as far as gaming, that they haven’t really nailed it yet as far as they’ve tried some motion control, they’ve tried some gamepads, they’ve tried all kinds of different things to nail that and one of the reasons that they’re starting to look more at movies is that it is a more passive leanback experience, they don’t have to worry about the interface. Even getting down to things that have appeared in movies--I don’t know if you guys have ever seen, it came out in ‘83, Brainstorm or also Strange Days, which I think came out in ‘99.
JP: Strange Days yeah, but the other one I don’t know.
MJ: Well, both kind of relied on similar concepts of having playback experience. So, you could ride a rollercoaster virtually, or you could go skydiving virtually, or obviously the big one that jumps to a lot of people’s minds is porn really, you could experience that virtually somehow. I just wonder if that’s going to be maybe more of the first tier market to get people on board the technology initially as they work out what the actual interface would be.
JP: Yeah, I think there’s something to that. I think definitely movement is not always easy to do without making people sick, definitely not fast movement, and obviously it’s just more challenging in general to make a game than a passive experience. So, if it’s just pretty enjoyable and fun to be in a 360-degree environment where it’s just basically on rails or on a track observing something, that could certainly be a lot of the first generation content. And maybe it would have some really small game elements to it, like branches where you can choose option A or B, but I don’t know that we’re going to see a lot of in-depth action games or anything.
TK: Well, you’re not going to be running around inside Half-Life or something just yet--apparently that still makes people pretty ill I think. Plus yeah, you have to have a whole apparatus to get control--you need an omni-directional treadmill, and gloves, and all kinds of different stuff to get the input. It seems, right now, too complicated.
MB: One of the other uses, and Mike and I have talked about this before, and I think it’s going to be one of the more prominent uses for VR, is allowing people to travel to different locations without actually having to go there. If you want to go walk through Red Square in Moscow, or see a rainforest or a waterfall, or you want to go to Niagara Falls without actually having to get on a plan and go--I think there’s going to be a lot of that. It’s a good way to see things without actually having to go there. I know there’s a company that has completely recreated the Chicago World’s Fair from 1893, so I think something like that, where you could walk through the World’s Fair and see all the buildings and exactly how it was set up, I think something like that would be cool and you wouldn’t need controls for something like that, at least not anything too complicated. So, I think there’s going to be a lot of that kind of use for VR as well.
JP: Yeah, I think you can think of it as a platform pretty much for experiences. Our guest on this topic, Jason, said something really smart I thought, which was “that this is sort of the democratization of experience,” or that’s what it promises. Not everybody can hop on a plane and go see the wonders of the world, but maybe with a $300 headset--probably not with the first generation but maybe several generations down the line--almost everybody can have access to something that’s almost as good as the real thing. Also, working remotely, seeing loved ones, just the way that it could compress space and bring people and objects in places that are far apart together, there’s a lot of potential there.
MJ: What do you guys think about where robotics is at? Because I would say that’s another technology that it seems like to me is kind of where computers were in the ‘70s; the robots we have now remind me an awful lot of that first Altair 8800 or whatever it was, that they’re very primitive but you can kind of see the technology start developing and all the things once they really start to get going. Matt and I have talked about it--several movies that have kind of relied on robotics technology--and it looks like there are a couple of good ones coming this year. What do you guys think about that area of technology?
TK: Yeah, there’s no shortage of robot movies these days, although I still watch all the previews with a certain amount of dread because I feel like they’re likely to fall into these typical robot movie traps.
JP: Should we talk about what some of the typical robot movie traps are?
TK: Yeah, let’s do that.
JP: A lot of science fiction I think is based upon this premise that there’s just some ineffable human quality, some sort of magic human sauce, which I guess it depends on if you’re religious and if you believe in human souls and that sort of thing, and maybe that contributes to that world view; but the idea that there’s just something that the robot just can’t do. The robot is completely brilliant in every possible way but it can’t understand humor, or it’s completely brilliant in every possible way but it’s too rational--it’s so rational that it can’t actually do the rational thing, which is to take into account other people’s emotions. We’ve made some progress on that actually because the robots in Interstellar--
TK: Right, the robots in Interstellar are actually pretty good because they have a humor meter that they can adjust, and then they tell jokes and their jokes are mediocre, which is kind of what you’d expect from a contextually aware language processor that’s pretty confident.
JP: The point is there’s a setting you can dial up and down. I think definitely the older sci fi portrayals of robots seemed to assume that there were some things that were just not tackle-able by technology at all and they were sometimes drawing bizarre lines.
TK: Well, at the same time they think the computers are capable of superhuman feats in areas that computers are traditionally good at--any kind of area that’s very abstract or numerical, these sci fi computers are always superhuman. That’s kind of silly if it seems like you’re going to reach human-level AI and it’s going to be able to interact with you on that deep level, like the computer in… What’s the Heinlein book?
JP: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.
TK: Right. So, what ‘s his name, Michael? The computer in that story, he’s so good at planning war that he’s the best general in all of history and he executes this amazing war, taking into account all these humans and their foibles, but he’s also portrayed as being uncreative.
JP: No, he doesn’t get humor.
TK: Right. I feel like this is a common one but I feel like we’re getting a little better.
JP: The creativity one really drives me crazy. Like, the computer can’t be truly creative.
TK: The problem with that one is not so much that it misunderstands computers, it’s that it misunderstands creativity, because in that story they always then go and have the computer be creative many times while saying it can’t be creative because they just don’t have any idea what creativity is. Like, it’s only combined two ideas into a new idea, that’s all it is.
JP: It’s often that the model for robots is like a particular--I don’t know if it’s autism or like a particular type of human nerd--and that becomes the analogy that the writer uses, and it seems like recently we have been breaking out of that with movies like Her and Robot & Frank, and even these Interstellar robots--I didn’t particularly care for those robots but those robots were a little bit better.
TK: That was like the best part of that movie.
JP: Anyways, you were heading somewhere else before we got off on this tangent.
TK: I was just saying, no, we should talk about the robot traps that they fall into. Is that all of them?
JP: Sometimes they don’t imagine that the AI can just be copied everywhere. So, they have humanoid robots but they don’t have cars that drive themselves yet, you know?
TK: Right, they’ll have inconsistent worlds where the road to AI hasn’t been taken somehow.
JP: What was the movie, the new Total Recall movie that had--
TK: Yeah, in the new version of Total Recall--I hope you guys didn’t bother seeing this--
MJ: I did, unfortunately.
TK: So you can attest--they had the main character welding robots in a robot factory. These are police robots that are bipedal and that apprehend criminals. Like, they’re so dexterous that they can deal with the public in a lethal way and people trust them to do that, but they apparently can’t weld themselves. Like, why on earth would humans be doing that? It makes no sense. We don’t even use humans to weld bolts on cars now, right? To go back to your point about “This is what robots currently look like, they look like the HAL 9000 version of robots,” and yeah it does seem that we’re going to get a lot more robots, but i think robots are going to be not so esoteric and not so humanoid. I think we’re going to get a lot of unmanned vehicles basically doing a lot of useful things, of various sizes from cars down to little tiny things. I think that’s going to be the way that robots take over. They’re just going to be vehicles. But I think we’re going to get tremendous amounts of them, and soon, for sure.
MJ: I think you touched on one of the things--to get off on a slight tangent again on the sci fi tropes--whenever I look at sci fi fiction, and the one that sticks out at the moment because I just saw it was Surrogates with Bruce Willis, a lot of sci movies do this where they take one premise, like super-advanced AI or robotics or something like that, and they project that into the future to this crazy-advanced extent but everything else is exactly the way it is today. So, in Surrogates, the one that I’m thinking of at the moment that I just watched, they have these super-advanced robot bodies that everybody remotely pilots via a VR interface, and yet everybody pilots their body into a car and they drive their car to work. One of the agents even has a flip telephone, because I think this came out right around the time the iPhone did, so phones hadn’t really transitioned to the single slab of glass. They took literally everything that we have now and they just added remote-controlled bodies to it and that was the movie. I’ve noticed this about a lot of science fiction in general, that they really just take one concept and nothing else changes.
JP: We completely agree. That’s a big pet peeve of ours. That’s just the standard “what if” scenario and it’s because it’s a lot of work to really think through a whole set of changes that ripple throughout society, and screenwriters or writers in general often just don’t do that work.
TK: I do have sympathy for them because it is tremendously difficult to do that experiment and try to bring everything along all at once. Honestly, I think they tell you, like if you ask somebody who teaches a class or something how to write science fiction, to keep everything the same and change one thing. I think that’s honestly what you’re told to do.
JP: But at this point it feels dated and annoying.
TK: Well, it just feels lazy and there are other people who are willing to do the work, so you just have to step it up.
JP: Or, I think if you want to ask a “what if” scenario, you can tell a fantasy alternate universe story that doesn’t try to be rooted in technology. There’s other ways to ask those questions.
TK: That’s true. Make people elves and then they won’t question where their technological--
JP: They don’t have to be elves.
TK: No, but elves are the equivalent.
MB: I think the other thing too is that you don’t have to explain to your audience all of these different technologies in a movie, so it keeps it much simpler. But it also, for somebody who likes to look at the future, it kind of sucks because it just kind of ruins everything.
TK: But the flipside of that is that now that there’s so much more media and people are so much more exposed, I feel like you can get away with putting a lot more in the background than you used to and people will just get it, and you don’t necessarily have to spend the time exposing every piece of tech that you use. I think it can be cool if things are just sort of happening and it dawns on you later, like “Oh, that was another piece of tech that they had.” Some good science fiction movies do this actually pretty well I think when they have the budget for it. Like Minority Report does this surprisingly well. That movie is annoying in some ways, but in the background they’re always doing something awesome that they like got some guy at MIT to design for them or whatever.
JP: Yeah, they definitely have a complete picture of a world in that. Whether it succeeded, I don’t know.
TK: Well, they wrote one up. There’s a book somewhere at Universal that defines the world. There’s some tech bible, I’m sure. They have the money for that sort of thing.
MJ: I think that was one of the outliers on really doing that. Like you guys said, it had some problems but it did try to do some interesting things. Going back to what you guys said about privacy, Minority Report was one of the first ones to really show that kind of lack--in the whole sequence with Tom Cruise with his stolen eyes is walking through the GAP and it’s like “Did you like those pants you bought last time?”
JP: Oh yeah, it definitely had context-sensitive ads that know you, right? There was some of that going on then, so it wasn’t that hard of a prediction to make. But yeah, we’re loaded with that stuff now.
TK: Yeah, they didn’t get the technological means right but they got the spirit of that one right on. A lot of the background stuff in it was actually really well done, even though the main plot is disturbingly different from the original story.
JP: When it comes to those ads, I think the scariest extrapolation of that, to me, is when you don’t know that they’re ads anymore. Right now, they creep people out, or it’s just a little annoying when Facebook is like “Your friend likes Nike!” and you’re like “Why do I care about that?” It’s actually really clunky these days. But I could imagine them getting good enough to where it really feels like you discovered it yourself or it feels like somebody actually suggested it to you and you don’t even know where the marketing starts and stops. There’s already certain types of viral campaigns that almost rise to that level now and that’s just kind of a frightening future.
JP: We definitely want people to check out the podcast.
TK: Check out the Review The Future podcast. You can find it on iTunes, or Stitcher, or on the internet at ReviewTheFuture.com.
JP: We have a huge backlog of solid episodes and they’re not exactly time sensitive, and we also keep coming out with new ones every two weeks. We put a lot of work into that and we’re really proud into those episodes.
TK: Thanks a lot for having me, this was really fun. I like your podcast and I think people who listen to us would probably like you and vice versa, so thanks for that.
MJ: Yeah, definitely. Thanks so much guys for starting us off.
JP: Yeah, no problem. It was fun to do.
TK: Thanks for having us.
A: That’s all for this episode of Robot Overlordz. You can find our show notes, including links from this episode, on our website at RobotOverlordz.FM. That’s it for this radio broadcasting. We would love to hear your thoughts on this episode in our forum, or you can review us on iTunes. We’re Robot Overlordz with a Z.
MJ: Thanks everyone for listening.