Our team at Autodesk is called Strategic Foresight. We help identify and articulate long-term forces of change and their implications shaping the future for Autodesk and our customers. As Strategic Foresight, we do not attempt to offer definitive answers about what the future will hold. No one can do that. Instead, we recognize that the future is only partially visible in the present and cannot be fully known in advance (predicted). With this in mind, our team helps reveal insights across the entire company by working with Autodesk leaders to shape a preferable future (out of the many possible futures) that delivers value for our customers and our business. We explore a broad range of areas (e.g., society, technology, economy, environment, politics) with a long-term focal length (~10 years).
Our team has a book club. We select a book, read it on nights and weekends, and then convene as a group to discuss our takeaways. Our current book is Flash Forward - An Illustrated Guide to Possible (and Not so Possible) Tomorrows by Rose Eveleth. The book is a collection of comics and essays that pose 12 provocative questions about the future.
Our team uses Mural. Mural is a workspace for digital collaboration. Mural gives us the ability to work together through real-time sharing. We create workspaces with text, shapes/connectors, icons, search with drag/drop images, and most importantly, virtual Post-it notes called sticky notes. The sticky notes get added to the workspace and can easily be moved around and grouped. As I read each comic and associated essay, I created a Mural for that chapter of the book to capture my thoughts.
Here are my takeaways from the book as depicted in Mural:
How smart should a city be?
To determine how smart a city should become, the key question to ask for each service is "Who is being served?" Oftentimes, cities feel beholden to corporations who view people as data when they should be serving their citizens instead. In reality, citizens are looking to governments for a livable, safe, and just environment that provides a home, the ability to acquire food, and opportunities to maintain health.
As more and more services get integrated, a single simple mistake in a provided city service can domino to cause multiple significant impacts. At the level of the city, data-based services need to be as reliable as electricity is today. When everything is tied together, nothing is allowed to fail. The future will be perilous unless the reliability of data and its associated impacts become nearly flawless.
Can a computer make art?
Artificial intelligence is just another tool created by humankind. In terms of art, it's like an automated paintbrush or musical instrument. Since there is a pattern to music, it should be no surprise that music can be composed by computers. Inspired by what they see and hear, humans use their hands and eyes to create art today. Computers get their original programming (i.e., inspiration) from humans. In that regard, computers are just another tool of humankind, even if algorithms are sophisticated enough to create art independently.
In the future, music and wall art may be generated on demand based on mood, current conditions, and previously expressed personal preferences.
What if you had to turn to pirates for medicine?
The cost of prescription drugs has skyrocketed in the last decade. The free market works when consumers have a choice. When it comes to healthcare, people do not have a choice. They are sick. They don't want medicine; they need medicine. When there is no choice, there is no market. This suggests that medicines should be free. On the other hand, the potential for huge profits is what drives huge investments in research and development that yield breakthrough medicines. Without the chance for profit, medicines may not advance. There needs to be a balance.
In the future, legislation may shorten the length of time that patents are valid for medical breakthroughs. This would allow less-expensive generic alternatives to be available to a wider population sooner.
How many rights do animals deserve?
Animals may gain more and more rights over time. Although zoos provide a steady diet and life among animals of the same species, the environment is unnatural, and animals have no privacy. Though everyone loves their pets like family members, many pets have no opportunities to interact with others of their own kind. Animals in the wild appear to have the most advantages.
Many legal documents already refer to "pet custodians" instead of "pet owners" because no one can own a living thing. One day, will having household pets be a thing of the past? Will zoos fall out of favor and be shut down before then?
Do you really want to know when everyone is lying?
The average person lies 1.65 times per day. In any 10-minute conversation, it is more than likely that there will be at least one lie. Despite the prevalence of lying, most go undetected - less than one per day. Even if every conversation were held among people connected to polygraph machines, only 1.16 lies per day would be detected. Studies reveal that males tend to lie about things that boost their egos ("I caught a fish this big."), whereas females tend to lie about social issues ("I could not attend because I had a previous engagement.").
Though lying is commonplace and mostly goes undetected, it lubricates the social and ego-building mechanisms that form society. It is unlikely that this will change in the future. Anyone who has seen the movie, Galaxy Quest, can recognize the consequences of a world without lying.
How do you solve a crime in space?
A restorative justice system where perpetrator and victim address crime offers advantages to a punitive system where criminals are judged against societal norms. The emphasis in a restorative system is to make the victim whole instead of disincentivizing the perpetrator to avoid repeating his crime which benefits society.
As prison costs and overcrowding continue to rise, the future may be characterized by a shift to restorative justice. If humankind colonizes space, free from the shackles of a justice system past, space could start with a restorative justice system.
What if fake news wins?
Breaking news creates an information vacuum that members of society want to fill. Unfortunately, arriving at the truth takes time, so news outlets rush to fill the void without the traditional fact-checking. As such, fake news proliferates. This is perilous as a functioning society depends on shared truths.
As society gets burned more and more by fake news, the pendulum will swing, and people will become more discerning in what they are willing to believe. In the end, the truth shall set us free.
If you could live as a robot, would you?
When considering Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, humans and robots have a lot in common except an ego and the need for companionship.
Even if technology advances so that the mind could be transferred to an immortal body (machine), the originating person would still fear death. A person is defined as a mind, body, and soul. Science has no technology for transferring the soul. We are more than just our thoughts and our anatomy. One day, Ray Kurzweil is going to be very disappointed.
What if gender was more like hair color?
Though biological differences are based on sex at birth, the roles traditionally associated with sex are more appropriately aligned with gender, a more dynamic attribute.
Decades ago, medical procedures were referred to as "sex-change operations." Today, they are referred to as 'transgender." Society will one day recognize that sex and gender are related but not the same. As times change, so will roles traditionally associated with the two biological sexes.
Can we live in and on the ocean?
With sea-level rise and the vast majority of the earth already covered by water, it is conceivable that humankind will be forced to live below the surface.
What will start as tourist attractions and homes only for the wealthy may become commonplace as decompression technology improves and allows more and more the earth's population to escape the harsh realities associated with living on land.
What happens when we conquer rest?
There are various ways to induce sleep as well as prevent sleep. Sleep is a process where the brain cleanses itself of the byproducts of conscious thought. There are numerous adverse effects to lack of sleep.
It will be a long time (if ever) before humankind understands the workings of the human brain enough to replace sleep with an alternative.
Will our future pop icons be avatars?
"On a warm night in May 2016, I watched a young woman quietly cry while standing on the slightly sticky floor level of the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City as the venue swelled with music. Onstage, a woman with long blue pigtails, thigh-high socks, and a short school-girl skirt swayed and sang in a cute falsetto... The woman next to me sang along, mouthing the words as she wept." [page 261]
The performer on that May 2016 night was not a human but a computer projection.
A human performer uses his/her overall appearance, voice, and hands (to play an instrument). An audience member experiences this with his/her eyes and ears. Communication is defined by the recipient, not the sender. Thus, the emotion associated with a moving performance is generated by the audience member, not the performer. So it is equally probable to get the same emotional content even when a computer produces the performance instead of a human.
In the future, will computers perform for other computers? For example, the audience computers could simulate the audience experience before showcasing the performance before live humans.
This book was a fun and easy read. It suggests possible futures that I would never have considered. Some things we have considered:
- Will architects, engineers, and construction workers design and make buildings that automatically adapt to changing conditions and usage?
- What alternate sources of energy will product designers specify to power phones, TVs, and other appliances?
- Who will collaborate using augmented and virtual reality?
At Autodesk, we are inspired by a better world designed and made for all. Our mission is to empower innovators with design and make technology so they can achieve the new possible. We deliver customers intuitive, powerful, and accessible technology that provides automation and insight for their design and make processes, enabling them to achieve better outcomes for their products, their businesses, and the world. Considering possible futures, navigating uncertainty, and leveraging change help Autodesk and its customers achieve the best possible future.
Sketching possible futures is alive in the lab.