Elon University

One of 24 Metaverse Summit question-answer sets: John Smart shares his thoughts on the networked future

This page contains one of a set of 24 transcripts including remarks made by interview participants at the Metaverse Roadmap Summit at Stanford Research Institute in May 2006. Each person was asked a series of five questions regarding the future; only the most “telling” responses were transferred from the recordings into these transcripts, thus, some of these interviews will include five question-answer sets, some will have four or fewer.

To jump to another interviewee’s set of answers, click on the person’s name below.

Bridget Agabra Randy Farmer Jerry Paffendorf
Betsy Book Guy Garnett Marty Poulin
Corey Bridges Will Harvey Robert Scoble
Iveta Brigis Daniel James John Smart
Jamais Cascio Raph Koster David Smith
Helen Cheng Mike Liebhold Sibley Verbeck
Esther Dyson Julian Lombardi Malcolm Williamson
Doug Engelbart Bob Moore Ethan Zuckerman

 >> Return to Metaverse interviews lead page for links to recordings of these comments

Smart HeadshotJohn Smart, president of the Acceleration Studies Foundation, is a developmental systems theorist. He is president of the Acceleration Studies Foundation a nonprofit community for research, education, consulting, and selected advocacy of communities and technologies of accelerating change. He co-produces the annual Accelerating Change Conference. He is a member of the Association of Professional Futurists, the FBI Futures Working Group, and on the editorial advisory board of Technological Forecasting and Social Change.

What is your most fervent hope for the future of networked technologies? My most fervent wish is that it empowers me to be more of a natural, biological human being than my parents were, and that it also greatly empowers my digital extensions of myself. I want a both/and future, rather than either/or – either I get smarter or my machines get smarter. If I learn how to use a calculator and I forget how to do long division, that’s OK, as long as calculators are ubiquitous, as long as those calculators are organic in my environment, I can count on them, they’re persistent. I don’t want a future where I am less socially aware, globally aware. (I want to be) feeling individuated, self-empowered, feeling like I’m able to contribute meaningfully to my community … First-generation technologies are usually dehumanizing. Second-generation technologies are indifferent to humanity, with some positives and some negatives, but in general they’re a wash. With luck, third-generation technologies are net-humanizing. That’s something you can observe from cities to cell phones to any technology that you think is important, that impacts human beings. Generally the interface designers and the systems folks don’t get it right the first time – and maybe they can’t get it right. They have to realize what we use and what we don’t and what are the downsides of using the technologies. My fervent wish is that we get past the first-generation effect, we compress that first and second generation as fast as possible as we move into this metaverse space – incredibly intelligent technologies. My secondary wish is that my digital twin – I fully expect that I’m going to have an avatar that, in my senior moments sometime after 2016, is going to be whispering in my ear the word that I wanted to say. That’s how easy it is, if I’m running a lifelong and everything I’m saying is being dumped to text and I have some simple augmented intelligence system like an avatar that I use as an interface to the world, that avatar is going to understand a lot of simple things about me. It’s going to be able to handle a lot of my simple scheduling tasks, it’s going to be my first-pass filter on meeting strangers, it’s going to allow me to be a lot more the kind of person I want to be, rather than keeping track of a lot of little things that I don’t want to be, doing things I don’t want to do. That can also be misused. My digital extensions are going to vastly exceed my own rate of learning. There’s a first-generation risk in those cases that they dehumanize me at the beginning … We don’t see them as extensions of us, but they are. If I spend 24 hours a week in World of Warcraft, that’s me. That’s part of me, so I need to have as much control (as possible) over the quality of time I’m spending, over the data that’s there, privacy, trust and reputation. All of the things I have in the human space, I need to have all of those things in the digital space or it’s going to dehumanize me to spend time in there … I have a very positive long-term vision, but I can see lots of problems on the way there.

What technology will have the greatest impact on our everyday lives the next 10 years? It’s Web 2.0. The World Wide Web is a virtual collaboration space. It’s actually a worldwide brain. Google is an oracle – an ever-smarter virtual brain. Google didn’t know the word “near” six months ago. Now if you know you can say to Google “coffee shops near San Pedro,” now you’ve spoken a five-word sentence to Google that has significantly more naturalness that what we were doing previously. If you do metatagging with Flickr or if you run a blog or if you are part of a social network, what you’re doing on the web is building a collective repository on the web that has higher and higher meaning for human beings, and it’s going across all languages. Look at Wikipedia today. If you expand one of the little stubs … you’ve done a tremendous service for a long period of time for a lot of people. So building Web 2.0 with the rich media applications and all of the extensions coming on top of that is a tremendous service to all of humanity. And if we can get that concept across to people, we can get them trying to learn and use those things early on – make sure their kids are digital, make sure that they are doing everything they can to adopt technology – not when it’s bleeding edge but when it’s leading edge, then you create this significant positive feedback loop. Then all the visionaries out there know they have a market, because it is the consumers who are the rate-limiting step in all of these things. If we see the vision – if we see how much we are impacting our children’s future by what we do today in these collaborative technologies – because all of that information persists – all those e-mails we did in ’93 are out there on Usenet if people want to Google them – I think if we recognize that then we recognize we’re building something that’s much more elaborate than any technological edifice we’ve ever built before and far more important to the future of humanity.

Looking out more than 10 years, what development will have the greatest impact on society? It’s the conversation-to-user interface. The metaverse is important – the ability for us to have a mirror world in virtual space that is more rich and interesting and productive than that physical space that you and I inhabit, so that you and I will actually feel like we’re in an impoverished space to be sitting here and talking unaugmented when everything that I’m saying, all the websites and the metadata associated with that, could be being projected on the walls around us from a little microprojector that’s in our scarf or whatever. That kind of world is tremendously empowering. We’re going to be managing virtual people. Nine-tenths of the people we’re talking to on the web will probably not be real people. They will be virtual digital assistants that will be doing things for us. And those skills will snap back 100 percent in real space, because all of the skills that you and I are so good at – this facial recognition, this one-on-one – we’ll be able to use those out in real space, we’ll be using them in virtual space. The metaverse has an incredible up-side from its ability to be a mirror world-plus. It’s a true superset of the physical space. It has everything that we have in physical space, plus all of these additions. That’s a wonderfully unifying thing, but I think the central lynchpin of that is going to be this conversational interface, the ability to speak naturally. We talk to our computers like this right now (makes a typing motion), that’s why we don’t think of them as part of us. They are not really part of us … Being able to speak to your computer and have your computer speak back to you in a natural conversational tone is going to be the thing that’s going to empower our use of all of our technology, and you can actually chart that that’s going to happen sometime between 2012 and 2019 … Conversational interface is going to be the front end to the metaverse, your avatars, your robokitchen, to everything that’s complex in your life. It’s going to be tremendously empowering for us. You think the internet was big, we’re going to say the era before the conversational interface was the Wild West. We’re in the last few years of the Wild West. Everything from that point forward is going to be totally different. Kids in 2015 who can learn as fast as their curiosity drives them – through a cell phone – talking to the Web and learning anything that they want – that generation that grows up around the world with that capacity is going to be a fundamentally different generation than what we have today. I’m very optimistic that we will see the ability to speak in a pidgin language – we won’t think of these computers as artificially intelligent, we won’t think of them as smart – but to be able to speak to them and have them speak back to us, using the same skills we use (is likely). They’ll be pruning what they say based on everything we say to them. Teaching my digital twin how to respond better to what I’ve said seems to me a very natural way to use technology. Much more sophisticated than having to upload the latest software. That’s the kind of relationship we want to our technology.

What do you think policymakers should do to ensure a positive future for networked technologies? They should be thinking about what is their appropriate role in stimulating innovation in this space – leading with vision and leading with dollars where necessary. Look at turnpikes, for example. The term comes from private roads, where they would actually turn the pike and raise it for you and you would go from one road to the next. That was hugely inefficient, so the federal government decided to buy those roads back. There were a lot of legal issues involved … But by realizing how much they could accelerate society by having this kind of ‘free bandwidth’ available in our nation’s highway infrastructure it really improved the quality of the planet. To the question of how do you network the country better – well, where’s the free bandwidth? We know we have fiberoptic technologies which are so massively high bandwidth, why isn’t it everybody’s right to be able to get fiberoptic to their home? You’ve got a deal with lots of issues there. If you’re doing that in an apartment building, well who pays for getting that last mile? But that’s something the government should be leading on, because we all should have the right to that kind of bandwidth. We did it with highways, we’ve done it with many things before. Now, it’s true that there’s a tremendous value in having a bunch of free-market competitors trying to come up with better solutions, but at the same time there are proven technologies that solve so many of these problems that could be – guarantees could be made by the government that this level of bandwidth is going to be available, and that we’re going to put this kind of money up, and we’re going to make sure the right of way exists, and then those problems could be solved by whatever technology, whatever company comes to the fore. I think that’s one example that comes to my mind of how governments can realize the benefit of us all being networked like that, and they can lead with a vision and lead with dollars to make sure it happens now rather than 20, 30 years from now.

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