The Deep Future? It Starts With Believing In It | Walter Van De Velde | TEDxLeuven

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Translator: Yulia Kallistratova
Reviewer: Ellen Maloney A long time ago,
I tried to be a mathematician. I didn’t succeed very well, but I was studying
strange spaces and surfaces. The term “hyper-reflective space” probably doesn’t mean
anything to most of you, but an example I remember is a sphere in which the distance, if you go
right through it to the other side, is exactly the same as the distance
you would walk if you’d go around it. (Laughter) This is obviously impossible;
on Earth this would not work. But in math these things are possible. And the amazing thing is,
once you start working on that and thinking about it
day and night, on and on, after a while it becomes possible. Your mind makes these things possible. And you see a space
where those things work. And then, the next step
is easy: oh, why not? And maybe there are aspects
of our reality that are like that. Let’s try and find some;
why wouldn’t we then investigate that? And so, utopian visions,
they are a bit like that. Maybe that’s why I like them so much. Utopian visions, they have
this provocative novelty with respect to where we are now, and they make you think, well,
what if this could be possible, and then, why not, why wouldn’t we try? So, who would have thought,
and definitely not me, that now, years and years and years – I’m talking about 30 years
after these mathematics experiences – the visionary thinking
and these utopian visions, they are really the stuff I’m working with
every day in the Commission. So, novel ideas, radical things, a “wow-factor” to make you
fall off your chair; that’s the bread and butter
of my research. Not my research,
but my work in the Commission. I’ve done research as well before
on wow-factors, but that’s another thing. So, indeed in the Commission
we received in that program that was just mentioned, FET,
Future and Emerging Technologies, – I’ve worked there for 10–12 years now – we receive proposals
with these crazy ideas, on average, two – three per day. So, in the ten years, I think, I can say
I’ve seen a couple of thousands of them. Can you imagine,
a couple of thousand crazy ideas? Not all crazy, not all
equally breakthrough, not all equally realistic, but things that make you think,
things where you say, “Wow!” Now, don’t ask me to name the individuals, but what sticks in the mind
is how it all fits together, what are the big schemes that come out
of these different proposals. So, 500 years ago, every speaker
will probably repeat this, “Utopia.” When Thomas More wrote this, there wasn’t much of technology around, but it reminds me of something
that I received this morning and I have a suspicion – ah, indeed – Thomas More sent his “Utopia”
as a proposal to my program. He’s looking for money.
Hm, would we fund it? Let’s see. Let’s have a look. Oh, my God, this doesn’t look good. No deliverables, no timeline, resource table missing, (Laughter) collaborative research among –
what is it? – three member states or associated countries,
the third country is called “Utopia?” I couldn’t find it in my databases,
it probably doesn’t exist. This is a hoax, no, this cannot be true. So, no, no way, we should not
fund this kind of stuff. Of course, that’s the cynical answer. Cynical answer in how you imagine
maybe how we work. But if the question would be:
Should this kind of work be funded, and are we funding it? Then my answer’s definitely “Yes.” We need more attention
to utopian thinking, other than the nitty-gritty kind
of innovation work that we now do much too often
in our projects. That’s really what the work of me and the colleagues that I work
with is all about: to come up with more of these visions. It’s incredibly important. It was already said in the introduction:
Today, more than ever, we need alternatives
to the status-quo of our societies. If not, we will be prone
to populist things, we will have only
a few alternatives to think about, we will not inspire the young
to explore new directions, and so on. So, it’s extremely important to do that. And of course, when More
wrote his “Utopia,” he didn’t have so much
technological elements, so he had to use the tools that he had. And the tools at that time, for him,
were laws, institutions, social practices. So he described his Utopia in those terms. Today it’s very different,
we have mass technologies, and they are, to a large extent,
the ways that shape our societies. We have to take that aspect now
completely on board, and create completely new utopian visions that are both societal, and take
those tools that More used, but that also take technologies
as a shaping power into account. And in fact, they do. I mean, our current democracies
wouldn’t work without printing, without fast communication,
without transport, it simply doesn’t fit. And when technologies change,
societies change, and then, the policies have to follow. For the moment that’s what they do;
they always scramble behind because there is no anticipative thinking
of what the world might be like. And so, thinking about these Utopias
in a constructive and proactive way is something that we dearly need. Now, the link between utopias
and technology is not new. There are many examples around. This is the focus that we take
in the program that I work for: What are these utopian visions
inspired by technology that are sometimes, and often, dystopian –
Big Brother is a well-known example, and Thomas More would have been
more than happy to incorporate Big Brother’s visions into his Utopia,
because it fits perfectly. But he didn’t have those things
at that time, so, that’s one thing. What are some of these things? We are way behind now the age
of the machines, we are now in much more sophisticated
machines, and the best known example, is of course, is the computer. If I look at many of these ideas
that we receive, then there is an underlying assumption
that comes in a few variations, that is really very important. The button to reset your world comes
actually from Telecom Italia advertisement where they had that in a newspaper. Now, I saw that and, well, the underlying assumption there is really,
that the world is a kind of a computer, that you can push a button and reset it
like your laptop or anything else. This comes in many variations:
the world as a computer. Can you think of the world as a computer without necessarily claiming
that it is a computer? This is inspiring you by the word
“computer” to study the world. A bit more sophisticated
is the world in a computer. Many, many projects,
and project proposals for that matter, that we receive are about that; about every discipline
that is currently studied in science has its computational variety:
computational biology, computational economy,
computational “x”, computational anything. That is all that you can do,
all those things are also in a computer. But the most fundamental one
is to claim that the world is a computer. And in the true sense, namely
it’s not a machine, but a computer, and the difference is that
the computer is programmable, it’s a general programmable
machine, right? So, if you take that then it means
that you can program the world. The world, this world, you can program it. And if we could understand how
we would be able to create our future, because the only thing that this world
that is a computer computes is the future. Every time, tik-tik-tik,
it computes its future. So, if you’d be able to program it,
you could steer the future. These are underlying visions
that we really see in our programme, often made explicit in bits and pieces,
rarely on the whole made explicit. But it’s important
to capture them, I think. Another one is the NBIC-Convergence. This is an old one: It’s 15 years
or older, it comes from the US, and much of Silicon Valley
still strives on this kind of idea. It’s the idea that at the lowest level
of the building blocks – of neurons, materials,
thinking and so on – the things become interchangeable
if you do it right. So, you could replace
a human neuron by a chip, assuming it has exactly the same
functionality, it will not matter to you. Then, this interchangeability
between bits, atoms, neurons, genes – BANG, as we sometimes call it as well – is the underlying thing there. Lots of projects trying
to materialise that. And it leads to things
that are not only human repair, which is what a lot of it is inspired for,
for the medical care, but also human augmentation;
making people better. This is an example of a project where
we really managed to, not we, but people really managed to put
a bi-directional link with feeling unto a human prosthesis,
a world-first that was done. A bit more crazy and more recent
is this kind of thing: hyper-interaction, connected brain,
read-write brain. Lots of projects that we now see are starting to look at how to get
information out of the brain, and that’s getting
more or less easy, technologically. Interpreting it remains difficult, but also how to get information
into the brain. And the vision that is behind that, for instance, is direct brain-to-brain
communication; no censors, no wires, no language, no whatever,
maybe a cable or wireless, and my thinking goes into your heads. I don’t have to stand talking here,
you already know what I’m going to say, because – swoosh – our brains communicate. This is done in projects
with the real results published in very high-level journals,
so in all these things you see the co-evolution of the science,
the technology, and the proof of concept: making it work in a very simple way,
but at least making the case that it could work
in a very general sense. So, that’s the vision to show the ambition
of some of our projects. Synthetic life: this is a project
that is now over, project BION, where it was tried to build
a synthetic snail. And I don’t mean a simulated snail,
but a real physical thing that is made of polymers
and all kind of stuff, and that behaves as a snail,
that is really alive like a snail. And if you can do a snail,
maybe you can do other things, and maybe you can go on and on. This idea of a synthetic life is fairly new in terms
of concrete results. There have been things
on small cells, and things like that, but to do it on complex device,
on complex beings is something that is fairly new. Expanding from that,
and these are labels that I put there: the Hybrid nature, Gaia++,
inspired by plants. These are robots that behave like plants. Who would think of a plant as a robot? But these are actually moving, they find
their way, find water, and so on. And in fact, it turns out that there was
a wave of projects, uncoordinated, of people proposing ideas
inspired by plants. Plant biology became the discipline
that suddenly popped-up in our projects. Never seen before. So, you see that there are things
in the world that happen and then – pop – these visions,
they crystallize. And then, there are what I call
“Les accidents de parcours,” that sometimes visions disappear,
they merge, they do all kind of things. I’m not going to the details of this
but you can analyse those things, that’s what we also do: You take visions
like the disappearing computer, 20 or more years old, that find
their ways in different variations that now lead to what is now called
the Internet of things, with certain twists, and certain things,
and combinations, and splits, and so on. This is a very interesting work
that has value in itself. It has value to come up with these visions
and to document them, to label them, to create languages to describe them. Because if you don’t, if you just talk
about the vision, you have no words to describe what those things mean. Even More had to invent all kinds
of words that didn’t exist in English to describe what his vision was all about. So that’s a very interesting work,
it’s provocative novelty, deep interdisciplinarity; none of these
visions comes from a single discipline, and I think the Golden Age
of interdisciplinarity still has to come. That is, now the low-hanging fruit
of interdisciplinarity is gone: a bit of inspiration here,
bits of biology there, but the real deep collaboration
that’s now going to happen. Then, they are dynamic entities,
they change, they can be adapted, and I think, most important,
they have sweeping implications – that’s something we in Europe
can learn something about. If you think about a company like Google:
There’s a core technology and then it’s applied sweepingly
all over the place. I’ve called it “sweeping innovation.” It’s not just applied there, or there,
or there -huh! – suddenly cars. “My God, why does Google
start doing cars?” But if you think about it, it’s obvious. Why do they do that, and why they do that? It’s a huge diversity of things
in which they invest, but the core technology is what they have. So, this brings me
to my own Utopia, if you want. My own Utopia is that there is a revival
of working on utopian visions, like I and my colleagues do
within the European Commission and in other places. Because it’s by doing those and putting
the pieces of the puzzle together that we see the hundreds, thousands
of ideas that we receive, that you can crystalise
these alternatives for today. And then, the narrow pipeline
which innovation is today, where a little research result,
for instance, leads to a product, can be replaced by a much wider,
this wide arrow on the slide, by a much wider channel
through which these visions actually feed the future society
already today. So, these are really tools
to work and to create futures. And I think that is my own dream, and that’s, I think, why I’m still
motivated to work there. I’m going to stop here, thank you,
because now I have to reply to Thomas More and see
what he thinks about it. (Applause)


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