Technophilia: The Festival of Dangerous Ideas

The panel mounts the stage – Marc Fennell is Chair, and Prof Marc Lewis and Martin Ford are with us.

Fennell asks if tech is addictive. Lewis says there is certainly the capacity of being addictive. Lewis says a high is not necessarily pleasure but relief. It doesn’t necessarily involve withdrawal symptoms, or

Fennell asks Ford if he is addicted to tech. Ford says he is – but it’s in the form of a nagging curiosity, so email and websites. He’s not on FB so he doesn’t feel FOMO as much as someone absolutely addicted.

Lewis says the development of drugs is also a form of technology, so the attachment system has been around for millions of years – their mothers, their tribes. Our brain is structured to attach us to things that are emotionally compelling. It’s an open system, it’s geared up by learning, rather than being hard wired. So you can be as attached to an adoptive parent as a biological parent. And this is a good thing. It’s good to be addicted to our kids. It’s good to be addicted to our partners.

Ford notes that he feels less productive if he is not checking his tech. It’s not a biological urge in the form of drug addiction. But it is a need and it is there. He says that this is changing us, because technology is enabling connection to a much wider audience – it is an amplifier of our social and indeed biological propensities. And as machiness become more human like, we will have ever more emotional relationships with technologies.

Fennell asks what the impact is if someone has posted a photo to instagram and noone has liked it yet. Lewis notes you need to remind people of what they are missing out if this is the case. He says that his own experience of counselling someone over Skype is not quite as good as meeting in real life. Face to face is special and it opens up all sorts of other forms of intimacy.

Lewis notes his wife is creating games for mental health. The powerful attractor of games can be used for good, not evil. Instead of dragging them to the therapist, she’s developing games for kids to interact with risky environments, allowing them to adjust and promote their problem resolution abilities.

Fennell asks if there is an overlap between cult like behaviours and addictive behaviours. Lewis says wherever there is a powerful connection between people there is a a form of addiction. Ford says a cult is where people are attached to a very charismatic individual and a way of thinking. he says it’s not the same as being attached to a device. Lewis responds that these things spread out – an addiction to technology can spread to an ideology.

Ford notes that as a parent he requires that his daughter does at least as much reading as playing with tech. Lewis says as a parent he also limits access, but his wife uses the attraction to video games to encourage learning behaviours. She is bargaining with them on video games – allowing twice as much time on games that teach children how to code.

Ford says his bias to encouraging reading behaviours is historical. The creative imagination of a world is a higher order mental process – something we should aspire towards. We need to resist an environment where everything is made for us.

Lewis notes that some of the games his wife is developing do enable use of the brain to create enviornments.

Ford notes that the change in use of tech since he began in the industry in Silicon Valley is profound. Technology is more intrusive, ubiquitous, mobile. He says the ideas we explore today will be amplified down the track. Eventually wearable technologies will become compelling when the connection is apparent.

Lewis notes we talk about the inevitable progression of technology, but that’s not always true. Bicycles progressed to their optimal function and basically stayed the same. Same with cockroaches. If you transpose that to current tech, that’s equally true. There is a natural ‘resting point’ for technology.

Ford says that the resting point theory may be true for some tech, but but he is less convinced of all tech reaching a resting point. He’s more convinced by tech acceleration, and gives the example of the cloud as a space for innovation.

Ford says AI will replace jobs. He says that FB has hired some of the best researchers is the world to create conversant AI. If we think about the line between humanity and technology, this is blurring.

Lewis says AI can’t really help for counselling but might help for neuroscience. We cann build on our five senses and amplify effectiveness, but after that, that’s it.

Questions are opened to the floor – two questions are related to transhumanism and the progress of technology to Skynet-style tech.

Ford notes that we don’t need to worry about that soon, but never say never. It’s also a question that if we put human morality in machines, will we have the same foibles that face us as humans? Will we develop tech that is pathologically disturbed?

Another question focuses on human consciousness as a mechanism to bring about true technological intelligence. Lewis notes that consciousness is still not understood. It could be an important aspect of human intelligence and creativity.  We don’t really know why thought processes erupt. He thinks machines will be able to grasp progressive reasoning, but not basic consciousness. Ford notes that there are some tech that do understand basic ideas, and there is a segment of researchers who are teaching technology like a child.

Lewis disagrees, saying that machines can’t have a need in the organic sense.  Ford says that the brain is on some level, a machine.  Lewis says he doesn’t know how you can replicate the holistic machine in the body.  Ford notes that you can trick the brain into believing you are somewhere else in virtual reality, so it’s possible to create connectors that don’t actually exist.  Lewis says that VR is filtering and simulating, but not disconnecting from the body.

Ford says that in future we could have guaranteed income and we could have a 100% unemployment, so long as we have the right kind of income distribution. But that’s a staggering political challenge.

Ford says that a lot of people saw the internet as a force for good, and some of that has been true but there is also the rise of authoritarian and terrorist oriented activity.

A question from the floor asks if the age of the speakers is colouring their optimism about technology. Lewis says that some of the massive suicide rates of young people don’t support the idea that young people are uniquely positive.  He says that there is a place for older people in the world to shape a positive future for technology. Ford says he’s concerned that the pace of change in technology is genuinely disruptive and will put unprecedented stresses on society.

Fennel asks the panelists to describe what’s different about this time. Ford says that you can see in economic data there is a structural shift in the way economies operate. He thinks the same is happening in social communication. When machines start to think it’s more serious.

A question from the floor is about serious games.  Lewis notes there is incontrovertible evidence that some games teach skills that are valuable for activity.  Ford notes we do need not to generlise about games – Minecraft is great; Angry Birds, not so much.

A question focuses on biotechnological enhancement.  Ford says he thinks this should be a force for great change. Another question focuses on Asimov’s Laws of Robotics.  Ford concludes that these are a famous fictional set of laws. Those laws are irrelevant – we’ve moved beyond them already with autonomous military weapons.  But the challenge remains about how to control technologies.  The real fear is about self-aware devices.

The panel closed at 11:30.


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