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The future doesn't have to be scary

Futurist brings realistic optimism to ASU.
How to get a good view of the future? Embrace the dystopian fear.
Brian David Johnson surveys the future of tech at ASU.
January 25, 2016

Brian David Johnson joins ASU as futurist who isn't afraid to confront the fears of a dystopia to build safe tomorrow

Brian David Johnson is smarter than you are. 

Don’t feel threatened by that statement. Find hope in it. Because Johnson’s job isn’t to run around the globe gloating in his intellectual superiority; rather, he’s a frequent flier whose greater purpose is to help people confront their fears by surveying the future.

This is why Johnson is smarter than you or I: He doesn’t hide from the fears of tomorrow’s dystopias; he embraces these concerns in hopes of helping us avoid them. 

Brian David Johnson

Johnson (pictured at left) will continue that mission at Arizona State University this semester as its futurist in residence at the Center for Science and Imagination, and as a Professor of Practice in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society.

His greatest asset in this fight is people’s imagination. The author and technologist — who’s best known as the futurist at Intel — wants to challenge the students at ASU, and the people of the Valley community, to use their creativity to construct a better vision of the future for all.

Johnson’s time at ASU will be focused on two things: His Future of the American Dream project and 21st Century Robot, which aims to give every child the ability to build his or her own robot. He recently took time for a phone interview to talk about these projects and how fear shouldn’t be a motivator to regulating technology.

Question: Let’s start with the obvious question for a futurist working at Intel — what technology will we want in five years?

Answer: Well, as we move to the year 2020 ... the size of (a computer) chip begins to approach zero. As we approach the year 2020 we get to 5 nanometers. That is 12 atoms across. It means we will be able to turn anything into a computer. My desk. My jacket. My body, into a computer. This radically changes how we need to look at the world. Then the problem isn’t asking the questions of what we can do, but can we get it done? It's a holdover to the industrial revolution. Now we know we can turn anything into a computer and can make it intelligent. What do we want to do? That's another reason I came to ASU. How can we use all of this intelligence? All of this connectivity? How can we use it to make them healthier and happy and more sustainable? Once we do that then it's just engineering. We can go and build it. Really, imagination is the number one most underutilized tool. Everybody has imagination, but we don't have a culture that supports it, that values it as a business tool, as an educational device. In five years, if you can imagine it you can build it. But you have to imagine it.

Q: I see your point about imagination, but history has shown that government and bureaucracy are often blocking innovation. How do you get past those potential roadblocks?

A: If we set the bar high enough and we're using it to solve problems. Technology is just a tool. It doesn't get to decide what it does; we do. A tool isn't really interesting until you can talk about what a tool can do. So I think if we start thinking about the science and technology and the work we're doing ... this will lower the bar (of government oversight/regulation). 

Q: Assuming we get past the limits of imagination and oversight. What can we do expect from this technology breakthrough?

A: I think there are a couple of things we can do. It's absolutely ridiculous that we have all this technology around us and it doesn't know us. I have to introduce my smartphone to myself every time I pick it up. I spend more time with my phone than my family. It's kind of ridiculous that it doesn't embrace our humanity. We need to understand we imbue our technology ... with our hopes and dreams. These devices should understand us. They should be our proxies. Now there are certainly security concerns and data concerns ... but we will see a time when our technology embraces our humanity and allows us to be more human.  

I'm a nerd. I'm a completely self-professed geek. For the past 10 years I've been working on the 21st Digital Robot ... it's one of the reasons I came to ASU, that we see robots not as something scary but as something social. Robots that should be easy to build and program, as easy as smartphones. Everybody should be able to build their own robots, having them imbued with imagination and personality and quirks. So we're going to be going into underserved schools ... and working with students to build robots.

Q: These projects, and your past work has had a recurring theme of using information or imagination to defeat the fears of technology overtaking us. Why is this such an important issue to you?

A: Fear is a very dangerous thing. When your brain is frightened you can do one of three responses: fight, flight or freeze. Nobody ever had a genius idea out of fear. A colleague of mine once said, "Brian, fear makes you stupid." What I spend a lot of time doing is I don't shy away from (fearful outcomes). But I also think we have to be responsible for our dystopias. The future doesn't just happen; it's built by people every day. The future is intensely local, as well. I work with people and tell them they have to be responsible for their dystopias. Tell me about your fears, then what you are going to do about it. That to me is very insidious and worrisome, when people do have those fears about technology and robots taking over the world. People are worried about the safety of their families and neighbors, and that's a good thing. But I try to empower people and tell them they can build their own futures.

Q: How do people respond to this?

A: Usually they're very angry with me, in the beginning. I spend most of my life on the road. Again, the future is local, so I go where the future is being made. I take this very serious. You have to go talk to these people. And often people stand up and get angry with me. I try to make them calm down. I tell them, you're worried technology is stealing your daughters from you and that's a good thing. You love your daughters ... we need more of that. Technology doesn't get to decide. We build (technology). A gentleman I was saying this to was getting bothered with me. I said, "Do you watch TV when you eat dinner?" He said it was turned off. I said, "Good, you get to decide. The TV does not."

Q: What are your fears?

A: I have just one. It ties back to that humanity piece. I do believe we do imbue our technology with humanity. We have different religions and beliefs. That's fine. The future involves everybody. The future involves people you don't agree with and people you don't like. That's OK. We thrive on our diversity. So I have no problem with conflict. It's our job to figure out how to make them right. If we embrace that our technology and business and organizations can become better angels they don't have our hubris, they don't have our flaws. We can actually design them to be our better angels. To take care of the people we love and make our organization better. The flip side of that is evil. I wrote a book called "Humanity and the Machine." I did some research ... evil isn't some demonic force ... evil is not understanding the consequences of what's going on. What that means is if we're creating these machines and not putting our humanity in it ... then we're creating machines of evil. That is a thing that worries me.

Q: Here's what I find interesting about the American Dream: Its DNA is built on nostalgia. The dream isn't to go where we haven't been, but to achieve what's already been done — success, happiness, wealth, etc. So when we talk about the future of the American Dream, we really are discussing the present or near past. So why look into the future for this dream?

A: That's a great question. That's specifically why I framed my project, my class, my book, “The Future of the American Dream.” It becomes a conversation about the future. Whose America and whose dream? It's not only limited to the population of America. It turns out there's more talk about the American Dream outside of America. I found that there's a hole in the collective imagination of America. This is the great imagining. Imagining the future of America and the world. It's a micro and macro question at the same time. Why I like the question is that it allows us to talk about the bad ... a whole host of things we need to work on. But we first need to talk about our dreams. If you haven't figured it out yet, I'm an optimist. I'm a declared optimist. I think we should get together and create a future that doesn't suck. So much of this is about a dialogue. I will never get it right. But the only way I get it less wrong is if I go out and talk to people.

Top photo: Brian David Johnson is shown sharing his smartphone with students. Photo by Sara Lavoie/Mater Christi School, Burlington, Vermont

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Exploring Antarctica: ASU plants its flag

ASU professors, students conduct research on Antarctica.
Antarctica, where most of the populace is researchers, including some from ASU.
January 25, 2016

Students and faculty at ASU have been digging out their hats, scarves and boots this year as Arizona experienced a colder-than-usual winter. But for Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan, ASU’s senior vice president for Knowledge Enterprise Development, this winter has felt positively balmy after a recent trip to Antarctica. 

Panchanathan was invited to visit Antarctica with the National Science Foundation (NSF) as part of his role on the National Science Board. Board members, appointed by the president, advise on national policies regarding research and education in science and engineering.

While there, Panchanthan visited multiple research sites and learned about the NSF-funded work happening at each — exploring stars in the night sky, ozone in the atmosphere, life in an extreme ecosystem and neutrinos bombarding the Earth, among others.

“The most exciting part for me was to find the science that’s going on that is done by our graduate students and scientists,” Panchanathan said. “The level of commitment that they have to pursue science, that they will spend that much time in Antarctica, was truly inspirational.”

Although Antarctica is a harsh environment, it is an excellent location for many types of research, according to the NSF:

• Antarctica is an ideal astronomical observatory, with long periods of darkness in the Antarctic winter and no interfering city lights.

• Antarctica is where most of the world’s meteorites are found.

• The Southern Ocean is the largest and most fertile of the world's oceans. Its cold, constant temperatures provide a unique opportunity to study "deep sea" life in relatively shallow water.

• With almost 10 percent of Earth's continental crust, Antarctica holds substantial geologic records of plate tectonic processes, evolution and dispersal of life, and evidence of past environmental conditions.

• In some areas, such as the Dry Valleys, erosion is extremely limited, so fossils of past life have not been destroyed.

• The Dry Valleys are also ideal for studying adaptation to extreme environments.

As Panchanathan was leaving Antarctica, an ASU faculty member, Chris Groppi, and his graduate student Kristina Davis were just arriving. The School of Earth and Space Exploration researchers are among multiple ASU faculty, students and alumni who have visited the coldest continent to learn more about our planet and our universe.

Space balloon

Groppi is an experimental astrophysicist. One of his research projects focuses on uncovering mysteries about molecular clouds. These clouds of gas and dust are the birthplace of new stars and planets. Scientists know molecular clouds exist, but no one knows how they originally formed. They shine in terahertz light, which falls between infrared and microwave radiation on the electromagnetic spectrum.

“Terahertz light is about 5,000 times redder than what your eyes see,” Groppi said.

Earth’s atmosphere absorbs terahertz light before it ever reaches the ground. To see it, Groppi needs to go where the light is visible — about 120,000 feet up into the atmosphere. One option is to build a spaceship, but a better (and 10-20 times cheaper) option is to use a giant weather balloon.

Working with researchers from 12 other institutions, Groppi constructed an experiment that includes a 15-foot tall, 4,000-pound telescope attached to a weather balloon.

The telescope must be cooled down to about -450 degrees Fahrenheit to function properly as it journeys through the stratosphere attached to the balloon. And this is no ordinary balloon: At more than 400 feet in diameter, the Long Duration Balloon is larger than a football field and requires enough helium to fill two semi trucks. It also weighs more than 5,000 pounds.

Antarctica is the perfect place to launch the balloon because of the continent’s weather patterns this time of year. Winds blow in a circle forming the polar vortex. The researchers can send the balloon up into the vortex, where it will make a big circle around the continent and return to the same location in about two weeks.

Groppi has been coming to Antarctica since he was a graduate student. He has worked at both McMurdo StationMcMurdo Station is a U.S. Antarctic research center on the south tip of Ross Island, which is in the New Zealand-claimed Ross Dependency on the shore of McMurdo Sound in Antarctica. — Wikipedia and the South Pole, and says the two locations are quite different.

“McMurdo is a 1,500-person town that has three bars, which are very popular,” Groppi said, adding that it reminded him of “small-town America.” But at the South Pole there are many more people, so it felt less like a town to him and more like a research station.

station in Antarctica seen from top of hill

McMurdo Station seen from the top of
Observation Hill. McMurdo is situated near
the Dry Valleys of the Transantarctic Mountains
and is Antarctica’s largest community.

This and top photo by Chris Groppi.

The coldest desert

Despite the common belief that Antarctica is just a vast expanse of snow and ice, there are actually areas with no ice at all. In fact, McMurdo station is located near the Dry Valleys of the Transantarctic Mountains, which are deglaciated in many places.

That is where Becky Ball has traveled on five separate research excursions. An assistant professor in the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences in ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, Ball is a soil bio-geochemist. That’s right, she goes to Antarctica for the soil, which can only be found on the tiny fraction of land — less than 1 percent — that’s not covered by ice sheet.

Ball studies the carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous nutrients in soil and the microbial and invertebrate organisms that help cycle those nutrients. The area where she works is a polar desert, and it’s incredibly dry. The most abundant land animal is a microscopic nematode.

Her most recently funded research will focus on a different part of Antarctica, the Antarctic Peninsula that points out toward South America. For this project, she won’t be stationed on land at all. Ball and her crew, including ASU undergraduate student Connor Wetzel-Brown, will be ship-based, island hopping from top to bottom of the peninsula. They’ll take soil samples along the way at every degree of latitude.

“The climate gets harsher as you go further south, so we’ll look at how climate and other factors influence what lives in the soil,” Ball said.

The peninsula is one of the most rapidly warming places on the planet. This, along with more human activity, has led to an influx of invasive species. Ball is looking to see how these factors are changing the environment, starting with the soil.

Climate change in action

Antarctica is an ideal living laboratory to see climate change in action. It’s also the best place to study the effects of ultraviolet radiation from the stratospheric ozone hole. That was the goal of Thomas “Tad” Day, a plant ecologist and professor in ASU’s School of Life Sciences. In 1995, Day started traveling to the Antarctic Peninsula to examine how plants were being affected by increased sun exposure.

Up to that point, scientists had only studied this phenomenon in the lab. They used sun lamps in an artificial environment, and no one was sure if the findings would translate accurately to the natural world. To find out, Day led a team of researchers to Antarctica. The Antarctic Peninsula is exposed to extremely high levels of ultraviolet rays, making it the perfect field site. Day’s research confirmed that the increased sunlight was impairing plant growth by about 10 to 25 percent.

Antarctica might be perceived by many to be a sprawling, icy mystery, but it’s also the ideal place for some scientists to pursue the burning questions of their field.

“It’s truly a privilege to be able to interact with scientists,” Panchanathan said. “The level of teamwork, friendliness, humanity that was there was amazing to watch and was truly inspiring.”

For more ASU research in Antarctica, check out The roof at the bottom of the world.

To learn more about Chris Groppi's research, watch Student aims for the stars in research, athletics.

Written by Allie Nicodemo and Diane Boudreau, Knowledge Enterprise Development