The Next Big Thing

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h1 "Give it a minute ... it's going to SPACE! Can you give it a second to get back from SPACE?!"

Louie CK

Ray Kurzweil and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen disagree on how soon we'll get to witness The Singularity - a moment in time when an emotionally responsive, greater-than-human intelligence emerges from technology. Considering how nearly every sentient machine story ends we should probably be rooting for Allen and his skepticism.

Our fascination with imagining the unforeseen consequences of humanity's drive to animate and humanize the objects of our creation - from Kubrick's HAL to Apple's Siri - underscores our even greater obsession with the technological quantum leap, the story of creation ... the next big thing.

By surveying the past century we can see that the technology that best encapsulates our humanness, that has endeared itself into our daily lives, has unsurprisingly mimicked our own evolution: steady, adaptive, incremental, yet punctuated by unexpected breakthroughs and external pressures.

Science fiction writers and futurists often struggle with these subtle, unpredictable shifts that technology's evolution can bring. They imagined flying cars, killer robots, and some even prophesized the Internet, but they didn't see social networks coming. That needed time. It required adaptation. The user needed to be as ready as the technology.

This is why true innovation is iterative, at each step adjusting itself to our behaviors, which in turn have been affected by the technology. This means, in most cases, no big earth shattering events, but a steady progression toward an increasingly symbiotic relationship between us and the machine. It adapts, we adapt, and so on.

This makes it not only difficult to predict but also difficult to appreciate. We didn't wake up to a world where you could walk into a store and buy an iPhone 4S to start a conversation with it. This happened gradually and we've become somewhat immune to how amazing this all is.

Louie CK's rant perfectly encapsulates our lack of appreciation for the technologically amazing. Maybe that's the way it should be, technology shouldn't constantly amaze you the same way you're not constantly amazed by your opposable thumbs. Technology that still amazes us is a novelty, technology that changes the world is accepted, ubiquitous and inexorably linked to the way we live our lives. We change it, it changes us. Neither notices.

Yes, it's scary, but also hopeful ... and definitely better than killer robots.

By Alex Schleifer, general manager, SAY Media Lab