Energy & Green Tech Society Techonomy Events

Program Chief Ross: Looking Back at the “We’re Screwed” Techonomy

At Techonomy 2017 in Half Moon Bay, CA, author Jeff Goodell discusses his new book, The Water Will Come with Program Chief Simone Ross. Photo: Paul Sakuma Photography

It’s been a month since Techonomy 2017, and I’ve had a little time this month to re-watch some sessions and read through session transcripts. Doing so reminded me pretty quickly that my general feeling over the course of the conference was “we’re screwed.” And by “we,” I mean global society, democracy, humanity as we know and love it.

A little dark and melodramatic, I know. But here are some quotes from the conference (video and transcripts are available on our website). This represents just a small sampling of the challenging conversations we had over the course of three days.

From What is Authority in an Artificially Intelligent World:

“I don’t know that we can get back to the Silicon Valley that I love, but I’m just hoping we can save what’s left of America, because we’re really in a perilous situation here, and it doesn’t help to just be so focused on the future that we forget the present.”

– VC Roger McNamee

“…there’s an eerie sense about Washington today, it’s like you’re on a playing field, but there’s no longer a referee. There are no longer rules; there are no longer markings, almost anything could happen. So when you talk about the concentration of data, it’s not just privacy; it’s lack of competition, it’s the lack of innovation, and it’s the risk to the future of democratic institutions.”

– Marc Rotenberg, Electronic Privacy Information Center

“The technology was supposed to bring everybody back together. Actually, what the technology did is further segment and further polarize people, because it gave them the tools to ignore the people they didn’t like, to hop over them, to really purposefully avoid them.”

– danah boyd, Data & Society

From AI, Cognitive Computing and Security with IBM’s John Kelly:

“What’s coming is, in my mind, even more threatening, which is AI bots, AI malware. These are intelligent devices and things that will come into your network, into your system, change themselves, learn on the fly, learn what is attacking them, and my prediction is that cybersecurity is going to turn into an AI versus AI war, that the only way to defend from these AI things that are coming at you is with smarter, more intelligent artificial intelligence agents that will find, trap, destroy, and divert those things that are coming at you. Because they’re coming not only at the rapid speed that we see today, but they’re going to morph and change because they’re artificial intelligence bots. So it’s going to become an AI versus AI war.”

From the conversation with GE’s Beth Comstock and former Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker:

 “I think there’s huge reason to be optimistic in the things we’re going to be able to do. But I worry about the unintended consequences and I think companies, business maybe isn’t set up for some of the unintended consequences of what technology is going to do.”

– Beth Comstock, GE

From an interview with Autodesk CEO Andrew Anagnost:

“…averages are a stupid thing for us to look at. Let’s look at what’s actually happening in the country and why we have this rage that’s going across the entire country from end to end. It’s because the benefits have been unevenly distributed.”

From The Internet Under Attack (which was really more about tech and civil society):

Moderator David Kirkpatrick, posing a question to BAE’s Peder Jungck:

Q: “Just to take what you just said and something you said to me before—you’re sort of saying that advertising systems are the best intelligence systems, and they have been weaponized.

A: “ Darn right. And it’s too late, Pandora’s box is already open. You can’t go back.”

“Will we get to the point where no one in this audience trusts the net for anything? I think we might be there now. I mean, who feels safe about their ID? No one. And they shouldn’t, because everyone in here has probably been pawned…”

–  Mark Anderson, Strategic News Service

“ ‘Internet Under Attack’ is really civil society under attack because civil society in the past decade has been very successful in using the internet in challenging authority, and now authority is fighting back. They’ve figured out how to use the technology to fight back, and at the same time you’ve got a clash of kind of nation states clashing with global sovereignties of internet companies and nation states figuring out how to use these globally internet platforms to carry out information wars against one another. And we don’t we have either legal and regulatory systems, or political systems, or ways of holding power accountable that’s actually going to serve the further human rights, democratic and open societies, and we need to figure this out, fast…”

–  Rebecca MacKinnon, Ranking Digital Rights, New America

And to add to that sinking feeling, here’s my interview with Jeff Goodell about his new book, The Water Will Come (recently reviewed in the New York Times) on rising sea levels, climate change, and our waterlogged future. Humanity has been dealing with water and floods for centuries, a crucial difference now? More people, population density and our less than adaptive physical infrastructure. Things to worry about (aside from the flooding)? The loss of a gazillion dollars-worth of coastal assets and infrastructure, climate refugees and mass dislocation, increased divisions between the haves and have-nots, a future where potentially only the rich cities survive.

On the bright side…well, right now I can’t think of one. But I promise my next musings will be full of sunshine and sparkles and warmth and promise. Next week, I’ll climb down from the ledge and tackle the forward-looking thoughts from Techonomy 2017 and beyond.