The future is at hand — with a slice of pizza in the other

Pizza and laptop

What’s the hottest class to take at Arizona State University this year?

Well, that all depends on your taste … or taste buds. One new class offered this fall could be the perfect recipe for students interested in learning about what it might mean to be human in the future.

Pizza and a Slice of Future is the brainchild of Senior Global Futures Scholar Andrew Maynard, a scientist, author and professor in ASU’s School for the Future of Innovation and Society. Subject matter will include a variety of toppings, including the existential threat of AI, genetic engineering, brain implants, electroprogrammable biology and dating in the metaverse.

The class is also a part of The Future of Being Human initiative at ASU, which focuses on the premise of how emerging technologies are rewriting the rulebook of what is possible and what society might look like in 100 years from now.

ASU News spoke to Maynard about his new offering, how students can play a role in engineering the future and how a mouthwatering pizza can get the creative juices flowing.

Man in black jacket and shirt smiling

Andrew Maynard

Question: I love the title for your upcoming course, “Pizza and a Slice of Future.” How did the idea for the class come about?

Answer: There’s actually a long and convoluted history behind the class. Last fall, I was looking for a way to provide undergraduates with a space where they could explore and discuss some of the incredible advances coming out of technology innovation at the moment, and how these might radically change their lives in the future. ...

I had a good sense that an informal discussion group would work well here, but to make sure we got things right I asked some of my students what would clinch the deal for them if we created a weekly meetup where they could talk about tech and the future. The answer was very clear: Provide pizza, and make sure it’s either pepperoni or cheese pizza. And so that’s what we did.

We kicked off Pizza and a Slice of Future last semester as a very informal meetup where undergraduates could get together each Thursday to chat about tech and the future — and, of course, eat pizza. As a pilot, it was fantastic — we had amazing conversations! But we had some students asking if there was any way they could get credit for attending. As a result, we’re extending the meetup to a one-credit course for those who want it. Students can still simply turn up, eat pizza and chat about living in the most technologically advanced age in human history — no coursework required. But they can also sign up for credit and do a deeper dive into the topics we’ll be discussing.

Q: Please explain the premise of the class and why it’s important for students to explore and understand the future.

A: The class is actually part of ASU’s Future of Being Human initiative, which brings curious and creative thinkers together who are passionate about how transformative technologies might transform what it means to be human in the future, and how this influences our thinking and actions in the present. The initiative uses the question of what it might mean to be human 100 years from now to get people’s creative juices flowing. Of course, we can’t predict the future with any accuracy, but we can use thinking about the future in creative ways to transform how we navigate powerfully transformative technologies in the present.

This is especially important for our undergraduates as they’re the “imagineers” — the designers and the creators of the future. But you can’t simply sit students in a classroom and transform them into innovative future-builders by lecturing at them. Rather, you need to create inclusive spaces where they can explore transformative ideas with other students who may bring very different perspectives to the table. This is exactly what we set out to do with Pizza and a Slice of Future. It’s a weekly “study abroad for the mind” that exposes students to mind-bending ideas that change the way they think and see the world and their role in transforming it.

We do this by focusing on a specific topic each week, but with the expectation that the conversation is likely to go in serendipitously unexpected directions that are never predictable but always enlightening. We also have a clear set of guiding principles to help create the right environment for the types of experience we’re trying to curate — these include obsessive curiosity, radical creativity, respectful inclusivity, grounded exuberance and catalytic serendipity.

Q: What are some of the topics or themes or you’ll be looking at for this course?

A: We have 15 amazing meetups/classes lined up this semester, that include topics that range from whether your next “best friend forever” will be a machine, whether brain implants will one day make us all smarter and whether we one day might be able to make fully optimized bionic human heart replacements for transplant patients.

Some of the topics are really far out. For instance: “Could we genetically engineer astronauts to protect against radiation? Should we?” Others are very much a part of the emerging technology landscape we’re currently immersed in, including, “If you had an Apple Vision Pro, what would you do with it?”

Q: AI is one of the topics that you’ll explore and has been getting a lot of attention lately. This topic comes with a good amount of fear. Should we fear or embrace it, given that we as humans can control this?

A: Ha — of course, we’ll be talking a lot about AI. If previous meetups are anything to go by, many of the sessions that don’t start off focusing on AI will end up there. AI is probably one of the most transformative technologies to come along in the past 100 years or so, and it comes with incredible responsibility to ensure we see widespread benefits without creating unforeseen problems. The beauty of Pizza and a Slice of Future is that we have the opportunity to talk about how to develop AI beneficially while navigating potential risks without getting wrapped up in much of the hype surrounding it.

Naturally, these conversations will go much deeper than simply fearing or embracing the technology. At this point we simply don’t know what the AI future looks like, and it would be naïve to assume that we can control it or that there’s nothing to fear. But unless we’re able to grapple openly and humbly with the possible benefits and risks, we’ll never be able to avoid the sort of blind optimism that we know has a tendency to lead to disasters that could have been avoided.

Q: What do you hope students will get out of this?

A: Three things: 1. A sense of community as they find other students who love to explore big ideas around the future of being human in a technologically complex world. 2. A space where students can be themselves and listened to/respected as they talk about their ideas and aspirations while learning from others. And 3. A deeper understanding of how technology innovation is profoundly changing the world, and how they can be part of steering this change toward a positive future for as many people as possible.

Q: Will every class have pizza?

A: Of course! Naturally students will come for the intellectual discussion and mind-blowing ideas. But let’s be honest, discussing the future of being human without a slice of pizza in your hand just isn’t quite the same.

“Pizza and a Slice of Future” starts Aug. 17 and runs through Nov. 30. Register for the class.

Top photo courtesy of iStock/Getty images.

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