The Future Of Tech, Work, Education and Living Post COVID-19

This year’s COVID-19 pandemic has been highly disruptive in many areas of our lives. As I type this article, there have been statistically nearly 5.5 million cases and almost 350,000 deaths from this pandemic around the world. In addition to the toll this virus has taken on peoples’ lives, there have been grave economic ramifications. Many businesses and industries have been hit hard and as a consequence millions of people have either lost their jobs or have had to take a pay cut.

The unstoppable growth of the internet over the last 20 years has had a profound effect on our lives. It could already be said that we live in both the physical world and the virtual world. Yet during the lockdown period of the last several weeks, we have been spending considerably more time in the latter world. The growth of the internet has already had a noticeable effect on the physical high street as more people do their shopping online. Yet, the lockdown restrictions, at times, have given people no choice, but to buy almost all their groceries online thus increasing greatly the rate of e-commerce transactions. We have also been interacting much more with other people virtually, both for work and pleasure. And as educational institutions remain shut, or at least severely restricted, we have been doing a lot more learning online.

In an article I wrote back in 2017, I discussed new and emerging technologies such as Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) and how they could change people lives, especially in the areas of education. As students are still currently unable to physically go to university and attend lectures, much of their courses and lectures are now online. In my 2017 article, I discussed how via VR technology one could be completely immersed in a setting and interact with it from anywhere with an internet connection. The education industry has long needed such a change. One of the biggest current problems facing young people is the unbelievably high costs of going to university. By the time they have graduated, they are saddled with staggering sums of debt. Yet I have long felt that it doesn’t always have to be that way and that given time, technology would soon provide a much needed solution to this issue. Even though I went to university and got my degree many years ago, I find that a lot of all the most recent knowledge I have gained has been via content online. I, of course, also supplement this knowledge with books in both physical and digital form. There is so much free and good quality educational content out there on the web. And I am also happy to pay for exceptional online resources too. Yet the total amount of money I pay is still far less than what I would pay going to universities, where tuition fees in the UK are currently still over £9k per year.

In an earlier article from 2016, I discuss how VR could potentially change all aspects of our lives, not just within the realms of education. During the lockdown period, the video communications app Zoom has taken off in a big way. Zoom has been the default option for not just video calls between family and friends, but also for remote working and playing. By the latter, I mean having a kind of ‘virtual night out’. Rather than physically going out to a bar or club with friends, Zoom has been used as a virtual platform for replicating a physical night out. VR and AR are both powerful emerging technologies and now is the perfect time for them to be harnessed to a greater level. Interacting via Zoom is still a 2D experience, yet VR and AR have the potential to make this a more immersive 3D experience. This would reduce the chasm greatly between the physical and virtual worlds.

There is no question that remote work will continue to grow and these new and emerging technologies will accelerate this growth. Yet will traditional office spaces be made completely redundant? It is tempting to go down this route and its currently all the rage to have the belief that this virus will make the traditional office space obsolete as an increasing number of workers find the option of remote work to be more appealing and perfectly feasible. To be clear, as I already stated, there is no doubt in my mind that remote/virtual work will grow, yet I think it’s at this stage too premature to say that the traditional physical office environment is dead. Even if technology develops exponentially, we are still, fundamentally, organic human beings and creatures of emotion more than logic. As long as we remain 100% organic human beings, we will still long for that human touch and physical interaction. I think to completely 100% forsake the physical world for the virtual world, we will need to physically merge with technology. I am with the futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil on his prediction for the coming Singularity in 2045 when Artificial Intelligence (AI) will be at the same level as human intelligence. This will be, arguably, the most significant event in human history and I will never bet against the infinite potential of AI. If software is currently eating the world, soon it will be AI. Yet as AI becomes further developed, the options for us to merge with technology will also arrive. AI, rather than posing an existential threat, I believe, will make our lives easier and more comfortable. What’s more, it will also enhance our lives and enable us to reach our fullest potential.

Going back to the topic of post COVID living, could the development of cities/urban spaces be affected? What if there was a growing trend whereby there was an increasing migration from cities to more rural areas? For some time, as technology improved – more specifically; internet speeds and bandwidth improved further – there has been already to a small degree such a trend. You can go and live in the remotest part of the country, but if you have access to a high speed internet connection over there, then you have full sophisticated access to the virtual world no different to that in a big city no matter how remote the physical environment may be. Yet will there ever be a complete deurbanisation type of migration where the physical location of people is much more fragmented? If such a migration were to happen in the near future and we are still 100% organic beings, we will be incredibly reliant on the virtual world and by extension the cell towers connected to our internet providers. Even if SpaceX, via its Starlink project, intends to beam super-fast satellite internet on all corners of the world in the next few years, for now we are still reliant on onshore cell towers as the source of the internet. This is quite a fragile situation, as any disruption to these cell towers disrupts the internet itself and thus a great chunk of our lives. We become instantly irritated with slow internet speeds let alone having no internet. It is amazing how dependent on the internet most of the world is. The cells towers providing the internet are powered by electricity and electricity is powered by energy from both renewable and non-renewable sources. In spite of all the technological advances since the first Industrial Revolution, we have still not found a permanent and workable solution to the long standing energy problem, that is, how do we generate an abundant and unlimited supply of energy for every corner of the world without having to tap into any non-renewable sources?

I sometimes feel that I overestimate the speed of technological development. Earlier in the last decade,  I thought that within the next few years (now), every household would have a 3D printer and the smartphone would be replaced by some form of smart-glasses with fully integrated and advanced VR and AR technologies. This has simply not happened. Even if these technologies may be available in some shape or form, we still use smartphones. The smartphones of today may be more sophisticated than the smartphones of just a few years ago, but they are still smartphones. Our interaction with the virtual world remains a 2-D experience. This is why I feel that in order for us to live completely in the virtual world with little to no living in the physical world, we have to adopt some form of transhumanism where our minds and bodies are fully integrated with technology.

Going back to the economic ramifications of the current COVID-19 pandemic, I wonder whether, at least in the short to medium term, the concept of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) may become more widely adopted? Already technology has been automating many menial and repetitive jobs that has resulted not only in vast swathes of people losing their jobs, but also in these same people being ‘left behind’ as technology marches on. This is a serious concern as such people become naturally angry and turn to political parties and figures who echo and amplify their frustrations rather than turn to transformative solutions. The virus has hit hard industries requiring a constant physical presence. Some of these industries that have been hit hard such as, for example, the physical high street retail industry, has long already been affected by the growth of the internet. This virus has almost been like the final nail in the coffin.

Technology never stands still and the number of people using the internet will only keep growing. If you look at the S&P 500 (the top 500 companies) you will see that the biggest companies today are all technology companies. My concern however is with the demise of all these low skilled repetitive jobs. Although I personally think that a lot of these jobs are time wasting jobs (and time is an increasingly scarce and valuable asset), which offer no spiritual or intellectual nourishment, many people are employed in such jobs and depend on the income for their survival. If such jobs disappeared on an even greater scale and the people employed in these jobs had little or few alternative skills for other jobs, how will they survive? I hear a lot of emphasis on ‘learning to code’. Whilst computer programming is very useful and currently provides a lot of employment opportunities, who’s to say that such jobs also won’t get disrupted? Furthermore, why would anyone want to learn something purely for the ’employment opportunities’ it will bring? Surely one would learn computer programming, because there are interested and fascinated by it? Learning it just purely to make money seems very flawed and short sighted to me. If we want to continue to live in a capitalist economy then a Universal Basic Income may have to become more widely adopted. Otherwise the alternative is a socialist economy. I do in the long run, however, believe that we will enter a brand new kind of post-scarcity and post-work environment of abundance created by exponential technological innovations. This would transcend any economic model of the past. I wrote about this in greater depth in my article from last year entitled ‘THE TRUE SINGULARITY: A Universe Of Unlimited Abundance And Eternal Harmony’. This kind of vision for the future is also outlined very clearly in the excellent 2011 book by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler ‘Abundance’. Yet in order for this to become a closer reality, we also cannot take technological development for granted. One of the early internet pioneers and entrepreneurs, Marc Andreessen, wrote a recent article entitled ‘Its Time To Build’ talking about this. We cannot take innovation for granted and rest on the laurels of the technological advancements of the past. When the virus hit the world, we were unprepared. There was no available vaccine to protect us. Thus we had to adopt measures that have been very disruptive to our daily living. Several companies may currently be working on a cure and it could still be several more months before one is in place, but the point is there was no available permanent remedy at the time. Technology may have provided many vital solutions to long standing limitations, yet, as is currently clear, there are so many more limitations that require solutions. And it is only via continuing to innovate and build that we can ensure that these other limitations begging to be solved are solved.

 

By Nicholas Peart 

Published on 24th May 2020

(c)All Rights Reserved

 

Image: qimono

How Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality technologies will transform education

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This is a piece I wrote back in May 2017 on how new technologies could enhance, change and revolutionise the education system

 

One of the true benefits of virtual reality technology is how it is going to impact education. Already there are online courses offered by educational websites such as Coursera. This is a godsend for those who not only can’t afford physical onsite education, but also for those who don’t have enough time and flexibility to always commute to a physical institution. For some, time is actually more valuable than money.

 

Digitising the class room

The real game changer will be when all classes and lectures are recorded and then stored online. Some university lectures are already filmed and made available online but I can see this increasing not just with university lectures but also with typical school classes. This is helpful not just for students who are unable to turn up to some classes/lectures but also for students who did attend the classes/lectures yet want to recap on what was already discussed.

If one can’t physically attend classes because they are unwell, they can catch up via the growing archives of recorded classes. Also if they are not too unwell, they can attend a class virtually in live real time via their VR headsets while resting in bed. They can even participate.

 

 

On site teachers augmented by AR, VR and virtual assistants

Also whilst being present in a classroom one could use Augmented Reality glasses (the original 2012 Google Glass was the earliest example of this technology), which are poised to be brought to the mass consumer market soon, to enhance the learning experience as the teacher is talking. The AR glasses could have intelligent speech recognition sensors which pick up on everything the teacher is saying and pick up crucial words and sentences and create visual examples in the students field of vision as an extension of what the teacher is conveying. In addition the sensors could contain algorithms which translates everything the teacher is saying into key bitesize points with several links to relevant related websites for further research and reading.

Intelligent virtual teacher assistants, especially one which one could have an intelligent and deep two way conversation with (given time) is the holy grail of VR and AI in truly transforming the education system. This is not to say that teachers are replaceable. On the contrary, truly inspirational teachers will always be needed regardless of the quantum leaps made in the field of AI. It’s just that teachers are human and one can only consort with their teachers for so much time. Whereas with virtual teacher assistants, one has 24/7 access to them. Struggling with some research at 2am and want to talk to talk to someone? Even your favourite teacher will not want to be disturbed at such an ungodly hour yet your virtual teacher assistant will always be available.

The hybrid situation of having both on site human teachers and virtual teacher assistants is more likely to seriously enhance the educational system and one’s own learning development than turn it upside down. As I’ve already mentioned, good inspirational teachers will always be needed but teachers who periodically don’t make the grade and don’t have their heart in educating and empowering their students will struggle against virtual teachers systematically becoming more intelligent as time marches on.

 

Virtual teachers designed for primary schools

What’s more, I think virtual teacher assistants will be crucial for primary school education. In my view, it is not very wise to expose children under the age of five to too much (if not any) technology. Yet after that age, virtual immersive teacher assistants may truly assist that stage of the education system. Teaching young children can be very challenging and it takes a unique teacher with vast reserves of energy and a special knack to truly connect to them and get their attention. Most of the time teaching children of that age group can be an incredibly gruelling and trying experience. As a result there is sometimes a severe shortage of good teachers. An intelligent and highly interactive virtual teaching assistant which children love to connect with could revolutionise and be a godsend to the primary school sector.

 

Understanding something better by being totally immersed in it

Children with a short attention span invariably struggle to absorb what a teacher may be trying to get across. Especially if the teacher is explaining things in a boring and uninspired manner. The best way for a child to understand and grasp something is to be fully thrust in that environment. This is where virtual reality can seriously revolutionise the whole education/learning experience. During a history lesson, a film depicting the horrors of the Second World War will likely move most people, but to actually live and feel it vicariously via VR technology could very effectively help people better understand that period of history far more effectively than through books, traditional storytelling and 2D visuals via film and TV.

I think there is a huge market for VR technology to recreate virtually certain periods in history to give people the opportunity to better understand them. In addition to this, there are countless more opportunities for VR (especially when it is more advanced at replicating our sense of touch, taste and smell) to recreate any environments for people to immerse themselves in.

 

By Nicholas Peart

©All Rights Reserved

Image Source: www.nbnco.com.au

 

Art And Living In The Digital World

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This is an essay I wrote towards the end of 2014 about being an artist and living in the context of our digital world. I have made a few changes since then but the general gist of the essay remains the same.

 

Today art can be split into two categories; “Pre-Internet” and “Post-Internet” art.

All the important and influential art movements are all of the Pre-Internet age. It seems to me that in this current Post-Internet age, there are no real lasting and meaningful art movements. There are of course many interesting artists today creating challenging and original works of art via digital media and who are very much in tune with the zeitgeist and more power to them. Yet there is something I long for which I feel is missing. And this is not strictly limited to artists and art. This applies to (and perhaps to a much greater degree) general living.

Before the internet the main media sources were television/video, the telephone, the radio and the printing press. The internet is all this and much much more. It enables us access to diverse and limitless quantities of information. In order to source information before the internet, most people went to libraries and even these institutions were no guarantee that you would find the specific information you were looking for. But with the internet almost all kinds of information can be accessed without having to travel to libraries or even spend valuable time and money employing people to find certain bits of information. Access to information has been truly democratised (assuming everyone has an internet connection) since the development and growth of the World Wide Web.

Today we have a whole plethora of internet related social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube etc. to communicate/express ourselves through. Before the internet, the only possible ways to communicate with one another apart from face to face, were via the telephone, fax, telegram or via mail (in the form of letter writing which save for a few dedicated souls is well and truly six feet underground as an art). The channels of far flung communication were limited. People were more in the woods with regards to what was happening globally.
People did not lose themselves or devote much of their time to living in “electronic virtual reality”. People actually spent much time reading books, spending their free time outside, having real relationships (we still have real relationships but these are decreasing and I believe in the wake of “hyper-immersive 3D virtual reality” more and more people will be cutting themselves off and almost be living at least half of their entire existence in this new type of virtual world. More and more people will even cease having sexual relationships since the stimulated virtual way will feel even better than the real thing).

Via the array of social media sites there are many different groups that artists join. Too many groups. A humongous vertigo-inducing fragmentation of different groups. In the context of today’s world, everything changes faster than before. This is a faster world. News travels faster. There is less mystery. Life is documented more than ever before. Through the internet, everyone can now express themselves. There are more artists today than before. Art or being an artist is not something that is taboo or contentious anymore. Things that may have been considered ‘renegade’ or less accepted in the past such as being an artist, a musician or traveling around the world are now accepted and quite conventional. To travel around the world for a year as part of a ‘gap year’ is now the done thing.

I think that to be a true artist (a most overused weird) in this current digital age is to leave no traces; no evidence of art or living. To disappear and be an eternal apparition.

Often I don’t have the guts or the humility to leave no traces. There is something intricately hardwired in me about having to ‘be somebody’. Yet as the great Indian sage Juddi Krishnamurti once said, ‘the moment we want to be someone we are no longer free’

 

By Nicholas Peart

Originally written on 27th December 2014

(All rights reserved)

 

Image source: http://www.blouinartinfo.com

Virtual Reality: Further From The Source

A hundred years ago people had much more time than choice (and even only 20 years ago just before the rapid rise of the Internet). Radio was a new thing. TV wasn’t invented yet and video and the Internet were still some time off. What ‘entertainment’ distractions were there? The theatre (yes people used to go to the theatre in droves), books, newspapers, various sport and outdoor activities, musical instruments, poker, chess, backgammon, to name but a few.

With the invention of TV eventually video emerged as a major medium and would kill the radio star – or at least significantly reduce the major market share it had in the market for all global mass media communications outlets. Then it was the Internet which would upstage and threaten the video star.

With Virtual Reality one can potentially travel without moving and leaving their fixed space. Travelling Without Moving, to quote the title of an album by the pop star Jamiroquai which was released 20 years ago (what foresight Jay!). Taking into account the level of instant gratification which VR could bring combined with the Internet and the increasing sophistication of Artificial Intelligence, one could potentially satisfy all their wildest sensual wants, needs and desires without ever leaving their bedroom.

 

Jamiroquai – Virtual Insanity

 

Of course the virtual world is nothing new. Any time spent surfing the Internet especially through social interaction via the many social media sites available is time spent in the virtual world (and as is any fantasy experience such as getting lost in a good book). Yet this is still a 2D virtual experience. You are fixed to it but not completely immersed in it. VR has the potential to change all that. The 3D experience it offers is still very limited but with time the potential for further development is enormous. Yet perhaps it will never be a viable substitute to real life experiences? At least I hope not. I for one would rather still travel around different parts of the world the hard way, preferably overload via clapped out public transportation. But what if sometime in the future when every nook and cranny of the world becomes connected to the Internet, travelling virtually becomes a real possibility? Google Maps has already done a sterling job in shrinking the world and making it easier to navigate than ever before. Two of the original pioneers of globalisation, the Portuguese explorers Bartholomeu Dias and Vasco Da Gama, would be astonished with this progress.

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The 15th century Portuguese explorer Bartholomeu Dias

 

But if VR could provide even higher degrees of sensations than those experienced through real life experiences than it has a serious future. One area of pleasure that springs to mind is sex. I can with complete certainty see the growth of the virtual sex industry growing exponentially via VR as its main vehicle. And with synchronisation from additional growing technologies like haptic technology (which enables one to feel something virtually without actually physically touching it) than the potential for experiences and sensations even more intense than the real thing is very high. Yet this idea both scares and disconcerts me. This is one of the ugly sides of VR which seems unavoidable. Sex sells and there will be some people becoming obscenely wealthy through this.

 

The Digital Love Industry documentary

 

But what disconcerts me the most with VR technology is the further separation and isolation it will bring on its users. It will become so addictive and immersive, that there is a real possibility people will be living almost 100% of their days awake (un-awake spiritually) virtually. I would guess that currently many people spend at least 50% of their days awake virtually via the internet and social media sites.

What the Internet has achieved is an increased fragmentation and separation of global society (even though it has, ironically, provided the tools for greater connectivity with one another than ever before). VR has the potential to speed up this fragmentation. In spite of the rise of the net, there are still ‘hubs’ where people meet. And cities, towns and villages where people live. Communities (although decreasing) still exist. Yet if everybody were to live all of their daily lives (including their professional lives) via 3D virtual reality (and have all their provisions delivered by super fast drones), one could live anywhere in the world with an internet connection. The very concept of cities, towns and villages could blur (a wild and demented prediction but what if this occurred?).

VR could mean a future where people almost only communicate and socialise virtually. I think Facebook knows this hence their purchase of the VR company Oculus VR two years ago, which may prove to be a very shrewd move. Communicating via Facebook is still a 2D virtual experience but with the additional VR vehicle of the Oculus Rift device, this 2D experience is transformed into a 3D one. And how many Facebook users currently are there?

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Oculus Rift VR device

 

What implications would this increased disconnection from the real world have? Could there come a time when real life socialising dramatically decreases? People meeting one another face to face less? People not having real and meaningful relationships anymore? People not going to cafes, bars, pubs or clubs anymore like they used to? The rise and development of the Internet has already had a catastrophic impact on physical high street retail outlets (through the rise of e-commerce giants like Amazon), that could VR be the final (or penultimate) nail in the coffin for the high street? Could most leisure activities like nights out to pubs and clubs, social meet-ups in coffee shops, holidays abroad and travelling to exotic places, going to gigs and festivals, day trips to theme parks etc, almost disappear if VR really takes off? Such a scenario depresses me. I hope I am talking rubbish and none of these situations occur.

 

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Back to nature

 

Yet the real world is always there. No one is forcing me to be deeply sucked into VR. I can take it or leave it. The Internet and the fast pace of globalisation has already succeeded in making the world a smaller place but the world becomes a larger place again if one is prepared to free themselves from these digital shackles for just a moment.

by Nicholas Peart

13th May 2016

(All rights reserved)