FutureFest 2015: Savoring The Bittersweet Taste of The Future

Savoring The Bittersweet Taste of The Future

Yesterday FutureFest took over the Vinopolis complex on London’s South Bank to give its crowded public a bittersweet taste of what the world will be like in a couple of decades. FutureFest started in 2013, as an event organized by the charity Nesta, the UK’s innovation foundation. Its aim from the beginning was to gather together some of the planet’s most radical thinkers, makers and performers,  in a collective and immersive rehearsal of a forecasted future.

This year’s FutureFest edition is curated by Scottish musician Pat Kane, and associated curators, Ghislaine Boddington, Jessica Bland and Glenn Max. The programme features six themes: thrills, music, money, machines, democracy and the rapidly developing cities of Africa.

There was a lot to choose from the first day, spanning from entertaining installations such as Neurosis, that allowed attendees to experience a rollercoaster controlled only by their mind, to the Sweetshop of the Future, that attracted an immense queue thriving to experiment new sweets. There were also interesting and thought provoking events approaching some of the most crucial themes of our times: the future of democracy, jobs, the turmoil of economics, and the diversity of a world shaped by robots, automation, thrilling experiences and financial innovation. All this tasty soup of ideas was approached by various gender balanced panelists in talks and debates.

Will Intelligent Algorithms Risk Our Jobs ?

An interesting talk was the one given by Oxford Researcher Michael A. Osborne, that designs intelligent algorithms capable of making sense of complex data. Osborne presented at FutureFest the results of his latest research that addresses the broader societal consequences of machine learning and robotics. In his study he analysed how intelligent algorithms might soon substitute human workers particularly non skilled ones.

The future of employment. Image source: http://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/downloads/academic/The_Future_of_Employment.pdf

Does the future need elites ?

Another important debate was the one about the role of future elites, moderated by Adam Price, the Public Innovation Lead with UK innovation foundation Nesta. It gathered Adrian Wooldridge, Baroness Helena Kennedy and Owen Jones. This debate was part of a broader discussion on the future of democracy. Helena Kennedy’s talk raised question on how to move forward to a new type of democracy that involves much more than voting. Other interesting questions raised by Helena Kennedy concerned the somewhat outdated nation-state concept and the crucial search for more effective international legal institutions and new forms of deliberation, if we want to improve democracy in the future. Could internet parties be one of those possible solutions?

Are We All Welcomed To The Robot Economy ?

“Toast in the machine? the fate of human skill and sensibility under radical automation” was a panel moderated by Ghislaine Boddington, that addressed the impact of robots and automation in a world to come. The debate joined together Ije Nwokorie, CEO of Wolff Olins, Michael Osborne and Anna Dumitriu, an artist whose work is at the forefront of art and science collaborative practice. The four tried to answer complex questions such as how to delve in a life ruled by algorithms. “Do algorithms understand us?” someone asked. “Will they take over?” “Do we invest in people or do we invest in the machine?” Even though algorithms will be able to do a lot, as Michael Osborne said: “they cannot do creativity, social intelligence.” Can there be a danger of going too far? The audience expressed concern of using algorithms and robots, as a way to replace humans which would take away jobs from people. A possible way out would be to move into a mindset that views algorithms as complementing workers while taking over boring and menial tasks.

Ghislaine raised another interesting question concerning  “the potential to create a more symbiotic relationship with robots in home and work. ”  This led to a lively debate on how to look at robots: whether as separate entities or intimately connected to the human being. Where are the borders of what is human and what is not?  A researcher from the audience mentioned how that question is not even answerable anymore, as it is too late. Could we speak now of being on the verge of  posthumanism? Could the future hold to all of us a fusion between the biological and the robotic?

A member of the audience pushed us back to today’s reality by asking vital questions concerning a time cap. We live in a global world populated by diverse types of human beings with different skills. It is important to never forget that we have people to feed that need jobs adapted to their diverse skills.

Ghislaine concluded making an appeal for a world more accepting of diversity including human, robots, and human-robots.

FutureFest 2015: Robot touches human


Are We Ready For Upcoming New Economic Turmoil ?

The debate “Through a glass darkly, how much economic turmoil can we predict to prepare for ?” was moderated by Stian Westlake. It joined together John Lancaster, author of the book “How to speak money ?”, scholar and author Barry Eichengreen and Fran Boait from Positive Money. All speakers were consensual that “there is not much knowledge about how money works, as money seems to be created out of thin air.” Unfortunately and as expected,  the debate was gloomy,  and its forecast quite catastrophic. The present political discourse of recovery was seen with suspicion, knowing as we know now that more borrowing corresponds to more debt,  and aware that the invention of new money by banks was what led us to the 2008 crisis. What needs to be done was the pervasive question that puzzled the minds of the ones listening to the debate. As Barry Eichengreen mentioned “finance is too important to leave to financiers” and unfortunately, all seemed to agree with skepticism that “the financial world has nothing to do with serving society”. “What finance would look like it was designed to serve society?” someone asked, calling out for the necessity of all of us to become active citizens ready to ask the right questions such as : “What do we want from the financial sector ?”

Banks have to be utilities that serve the people, and there is an urgent need for structural change. Obviously there isn’t one simple solution to solve the economic complexity. Barry Eichengreen was a bit suspicious of whether sovereign money would be a possible solution, as positive money made a case for. As he said “if you whack the banking system the problem will go to some place else.” On a positive note Eichengreen mentioned how we got something after the crisis,  succeeded avoiding the worst, even though we failed to do more reforms. But regulators continue to issue rules and governments continue to pass supplementary regulations, against the backdrop of scandals that keep the case for financial reform.

“There is a problem of culture in finance, the problem of bad behaviour.” How to educate finaciers and the population in general, as we are all part of the system? We can’t break banks, but we can make them safe by making shareholders commit more. Something to be addressed as well is the commercial credit rating agencies as these are “not the best kid on the block…”

Alternative financial models were also mentioned such as blockchain and crowdfunding, but Barry Eichengreen raised a word of caution questioning whether rapid financial innovation could lead to instability which was not such a good thing. The need to educate people about finance, to foster transparency and to change the system of incentives was also addressed.

What is The Future Of “To Be?”

A fascinating talk worth of notice was the one given by Professor Luciano Floridi, entitled “from things to ings. Floridi made a case for a brand new conceptualization of the human being as an “interactable node” in a network, by revisiting physics and high school geometry notions of atoms, clouds, point, line and surface. According to Floridi, “things are interaction nodes” and “to be is to be interactable.” What impact could Floridi’s conceptualization really make in the cultural construction of human being. As interactable nodes, could we be softly shifting to a new type of biosphere consciousness expanding beyond self interest ?

Is Spielberg’s Minority Report Fiction Coming True ?

“We are all pre-criminals within the context of mass surveillance; a war on terror” said Edward Snowden, immediately reminding me of the precogs on Spielbergs masterpiece. Snowden spoke via webconference from Russia, on a panel with Vivienne Westwood (who had previously spoken about vulture capitalism)  chaired by Nesta’s CEO Geoff Mulgan. In his eloquent talk, Snowden argued that our governments have deceived us about the benefits of surveillance as a form of protection. Even though the US surveillance programmes have intercepted messages from everyone for more than ten years,they weren’t able to stop terrorism, and in Snowden’s opinion, these programmes are spying programmes. “The only way to fix it”, said Snowden, “is to admit we are doing it, that it’s a problem, and that citizens’ rights are being violated”. Looking to the future, he said that making information private will win, and we’ll see a more liberal future, instead of an authoritarian one.

More about the future tomorrow!