A Preeminent Technology – Futurist Looks into the Mirror
The Making of a Futurist
We recently had the privilege of interviewing a gentleman named Kevin Kelly, the former editor/publisher of Whole Earth Review (1983-90), co-founder of Wired magazine (1993), and founding editor and co-publisher of the Cool Tools website (2003).
Born in Pennsylvania in 1952, Kelly was educated in New Jersey. Because his father used systems analysis in his job at Time magazine, his son developed an early interest in cybernetics, which is the science of communications and automatic control systems in both machines and living things. Given the future that was speeding towards us, his timing was impeccable.
After spending one year at the University of Rhode Island studying geology, he decided to take his studies outside the classroom by traveling extensively, including backpacking throughout Asia. This experience remains today one of the influential periods of his life.
Now 66 years of age, Kelly, his wife, biochemist Gia-Miin Fuh, and their three children live near San Francisco. He is an accomplished author and an exceptionally popular lecturer focused on the future of science and technology.
His Future Vision is Our Present Reality
Since the early 90s, Kelly has been releasing provocative books such as Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems and the Economic World, and New Rules for the New Economy, wherein he cemented his reputation as a preeminent technology futurist.
Still several years before the internet would become a ubiquitous global communication system, Kelly was busy predicting our digital future with an eerie accuracy. His vision of the melding of biology and computer science included detailing the networked world, how complex machines and systems would come to dominate our economy, cryptocurrencies and artificial intelligence, among other breakthroughs.
His latest book, 2017’s The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future was named a “Best Business Book of 2017” by Innovation and has been called “a quintessential work of technological futurism” by James Surowiecki of strategy + business.
An insight into this fascinating man’s mind comes in the form of five of his favorite quotes, which are as follows:
- Don’t be the best. Be the only.— Jerry Garcia
- If you really want to learn how something works, try to change it.— Matt Mazur
- For something to be beautiful it doesn’t have to be pretty.— Rei Kawakubo
- If you find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn’t lead anywhere.— Frank A. Clark
- If you’re not ready to find exceptional things, you won’t discover them. – Avi Loeb
In preparing for our scheduled interview, I will admit to feeling a bit intimidated and clearly out of my league. After all, Kevin Kelly has often been referred to as “the smartest person in the world.”
While I’m nowhere near that zip code, I was smart enough to ask my Generation Y wunderkind partner, Beulah Yogi, to join me on the call. With her technological expertise in tow, we were ready to contact the master.
The focus of our discussion was an article he wrote in February 2019 for Wired magazine titled AR Will Spark the Next Big Tech Platform – Call it Mirrorworld.
In listening to Kelly’s ideas and theories, it felt like we had time traveled to an unimaginable and exciting future. We’ll do our best to pass on our understanding of the conversation in plain, understandable English.
Let’s start with AR, which stands for “Augmented Reality.” AR is simply using the software technology available in our computer or iPhone to enhance real life. A mixture of real life and virtual reality, AR provides additional real-time information to enhance whatever experience you may be having.
Why am I thinking about Woody Allen’s 1973 futuristic comedy Sleeper, where he envisions a tall, cylinder-shaped machine, an orgasmatron, and a smaller orb, both imbued with technology to replace the need for intimate human interaction? Perhaps we’ll leave that question unanswered.
Let’s instead talk about digital AR services that are available today. Assume you are on vacation in Jodhpur, India and visiting the incredible architectural wonder – the Umaid Bhawan Palace.
You are so enthralled that you need to know more, so you grab your iPhone and take a photo. Somehow, the technology identifies the palace and pushes a page to your screen with everything you could possibly want to know about its history, including that this former palace is now one of the greatest hotels in the world (with a room rate to match).
Or, what if you’re in a furniture store and like a piece of furniture but aren’t sure how it will look inside your home. Well, AR will take that furniture and transport it right into your home setting so you can see for yourself how it looks. IKEA and Wayfair are just two of the home decorating companies wowing their customers with such technology.
Or, ladies, do you want to find the perfect makeup before making an expensive purchase? AR will allow you to bring up a photo of yourself with whatever type of makeup interests you so you can better find what you are searching for. L’Oreal is just one of many companies rolling out such technology.
These AR services, and others, are available now and we are probably using them. We just may not know what to call the technology behind them, other than “incredible.”
In his Wired article, Kelly discusses how technology influences the way we think and live. The first technology platform was the web, he says, which made a world of information available at the tip of our fingers; the second platform was social media, which has influenced our behavior and relationships. In both platforms, humans and the information they obtain have been digitized and are subject to algorithms, meaning mathematical sets of rules to be followed to solve a problem.
Kelly believes we are at the inception of the third life-altering platform which he refers to as “mirrorworld,” wherein the entire world will be digitized and subject to algorithms. Everything in the world will have a “digital twin.”
A term first popularized by Yale computer scientist David Gelernter, mirrorworld is effectively an alternate online universe that will replicate everything that exists in the real world. “The mirrorworld will reflect not just what something looks like but its context, meaning and function,” Kelly says. “We will interact with it, manipulate it, and experience it like we do the real world.”
It is nearly overwhelming in its contemplation, but aren’t we already seeing hints of this with Google Earth? Kelly calls this “a crude version of mirrorworld.” When it is truly ready, the façade-like view from Google Earth will be replaced by what Kelly calls “placeness,” meaning indistinguishable from our current reality.
In Kelly’s vision, a digital map will be the same size as the environment it maps. A map of the world the size of the world.
We will be able to travel anywhere without leaving the comfort of our homes or breaking our bank accounts. We will be accessing information about anything we choose and personalize it any way we want. We will have robots that reside in the mirrorworld working for us by relying on an exact replica of our world to detect everything around them. Whether they are driving our cars, handling our chores like cooking and cleaning, or manufacturing virtually everything we may need.
“More wealth and power than ever before will be created for the people and companies that dominate this grand third platform,” Kelly writes, “just as it has on the first two platforms.” It will also create enormous prosperity down the chain for millions of people, he believes, which is a heartening vision. “You are not too late,” he says, “there are no experts in this field.”
The possible ramifications are equally astounding and concerning. Imagine a disabled or otherwise homebound person being able to digitally travel to that same palace hotel in India, or anywhere else, thereby having a sense of experiencing the world as never before.
At the same time, imagine HAL in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, the AI robot who went rogue by deciding to control, rather than be in servitude to, the humans who created him. The result was chilling and the apprehension real.
Experiencing the Mirrorworld
Kelly gives us a glimpse into Mirrorworld by describing the HoloLens, which is a see-through visor mounted to a head strap first introduced by Microsoft in 2016.
Turn on the HoloLens and you will be in your own “office of the future,” using your hands and eyes to choose and experience your task. You can touch, grasp and move virtual computer screens or objects that appear in front of you. With voice commands you can operate and move the objects, whether they be computer-like screens or 3D replicas of objects you are working on.
As an indication of the potential breadth of applications for both commercial and military use, Tesla is using the technology in factory production of their electric cars, and in 2018, the US Army ordered 100,000 of these headsets in order to stay one step ahead of the enemy.
It was a controversial sale that Microsoft energetically defended. Like it or not, the technology is being tested across the military branches because the future of our national security will depend more and more on artificial intelligence and augmented reality.
The physical and virtual worlds combining to create augmented reality, Kelly says, is still in its infancy. Think dial-up AOL with its rudimentary search in the baby days of the internet versus the always connected instantaneous internet of today. As the HoloLens demonstrates, we are on the path and moving rapidly ahead.
He points to the augmented reality mobile game Pokemon Go as an early idea of the possibilities in gaming and entertainment.
New technologies and applications will be created and adapted to this world such as blockchain, the revolutionary software underpinning the creation of cryptocurrencies. At the same time, our current worries regarding security and the loss of our privacy will only increase because there will be “eyes” everywhere we go.
This future is exciting to behold and befuddling at the same time. For one, do we really need an alternative universe – isn’t one enough, more than enough at times? How many ways could these new technologies be used for the wrong purposes? The cyber criminals of today will have plenty of answers, we’re certain.
But if we’ve learned anything from history, technological progress is like a 19th century locomotive steaming powerfully ahead and there will be no derailing it. Led by our savvy younger generations, like it or not we will move steadily into our electrifying future. We should balance it all as judiciously as possible, lured by the benefits and wary of the risks.
The Future for Kevin Kelly
For relaxation, Kelly enjoys family time, traveling, biking, photography and is a passionate conservationist. But frankly, we don’t see him relaxing very often. This cultural influencer remains smack in the middle of the latest digital revolution and other exciting trends.
His many projects range from the old reliable – predicting our digital future – to tweeting out something from every page of Out of Control, to lecturing around the world, to writing one article every year for Wired. If the next one is anything like mirrorworld, it will surely be greatly anticipated.
He also serves on the board at the Long Now Foundation, which is focused on long-term thinking, recommends educational films (truefilms.com), reviews what he refers to as “cool tools” (kk.org/cooltools/), and co-writes a weekly newsletter called Recomendo (recomendo.com).
Co-written with Mark Frauenfelder of Boing Boing fame and Claudia Dawson, his webmaster and assistant, each Recomendo newsletter provides six very short recommendations of “stuff” – – things they are watching, listening to, reading, cool tools they are enjoying, or great destinations. For we technology pedestrians, this is a great entry point into the mind of Kevin Kelly and we strongly recommend subscribing.
We can see by a glance in the mirror that it’s time to wrap this up. Our alter egos have already left for the pub. Many thanks once again to the brilliant futurist, Kevin Kelly, for his patience and generosity as we peered into his expansive mind. We will be watching and listening to whatever he says next with fascination.