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MIT Technology Review

Young pioneers on their hopes for technology, and older trailblazers on their regrets

August 21, 2019

We asked young people to tell us their hopes for the future of technology. And we asked older people with long careers behind them to tell us what might have been. Here’s what they said.

Kenneth Shinozuka
David Vintiner

The consciousness hunter
Kenneth Shinozuka, age 20

 

A few years ago I became fascinated with the science of human consciousness. The so-called “hard problem” of consciousness, which asks how an inner subjective experience could arise from the physical activity of the brain, is one of the biggest enigmas in the universe. I was highly intrigued by philosophers who claimed that the standard view of the world put forward by scientists—the notion that everything can be reduced to units of matter or physical material—was incomplete because it couldn’t accommodate the phenomenon of consciousness. I began to read about perspectives on consciousness, as well as the nature of reality, from a wide variety of fields, including neuroscience, philosophy, physics, and spirituality. It became clear to me that we need to discover an entirely new field of science in order to truly explain consciousness. I recently interned at the Qualia Research Institute, which hopes to map out the “state space of consciousness”—i.e., the space of all the various subjective experiences that a sentient organism could possibly have. The state space of consciousness is likely vast beyond comprehension, and most of us spend our lives in one very small cluster of points within it.

As far as I'm aware, few researchers have attempted to figure out the geometry of this space. My hope is that not only can we do it, but once we do, we can develop an objective framework that generates uniquely crisp, bold, and plausible predictions about the quality of different experiences. This would allow us to answer questions like: Is a cluster headache a worse experience than chronic depression? What are the most blissful experiences available to human beings, and how do we sustain them? And so on.

I believe we can, in the long term, eliminate involuntary suffering if we understand consciousness, since we can improve the quality of experience for all sentient organisms once we find out the structure of positive and negative experiences.

Kenneth Shinozuka is the inventor of SafeWander, a wearable sensor that sends a smartphone alert when the wearer gets out of bed.


Kairan Quazi
Christie Hemm Klok

The prodigy
Kairan Quazi, age 10

 

Artificial intelligence could transform our institutions by targeting the implicit biases that exist in our education, employment, and criminal justice systems. But the way we use AI now isn’t working—since predictive algorithms are based on finding patterns in historical data, skewed inputs generate skewed outputs. For example, since our criminal justice system has historically incarcerated minorities disproportionately for every category of crime, any predictive algorithms that law enforcement uses for criminal identification and recidivism patterns will only perpetuate this problem.

My hope is that we can develop new algorithms to neutralize these biases. I believe that in my lifetime we can realize the potential of AI to revolutionize our socioeconomic institutions. I’m now pursuing degrees in math and computer science with the goal of using AI to help people who don’t respond to traditional teaching methods, so-called neuroatypical and asynchronous learners—people like me. I hope to work on technology that can identify such learners and tailor educational pathways that work better for us.

Kairan Quazi is an avid vlogger and coder. At age 9 he enrolled in Las Positas College, where he studies mathematics, computer science, and physics. He also serves as an AI research mentee at Intel Labs.


Melati Wijsen
Courtesy of the subject

The environmental activist
Melati Wijsen, age 18

 

Growing up on the island of Bali, it was hard not to see the negative impacts plastic was having on our environment. Even at ages 10 and 12 we understood that plastic was ending up in places that it shouldn’t. At the same time, we were learning about people who throughout history made a positive impact—Nelson Mandela, Lady Diana, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi. We went home one day asking ourselves, what can we do now? We didn’t want to wait until we were older.

So we created Bye Bye Plastic Bags, a youth-led NGO with the vision of making Bali plastic bag free. In the past six years we have spoken to over 50,000 students, distributed over 16,000 alternative bags, and hosted Bali’s Biggest Clean Up three years in a row, mobilizing over 45,000 people on the island to collect over 130 tons of plastic waste. Bye Bye Plastic Bags now operates in 40 locations around the world.

Previous generations might not have known what they were doing to the environment. This one does. We hope that what we’ve done empowers other young people to stand up for what they believe in, that they aren’t too young or too small to understand they can play a huge role in building the solutions.

Melati Wijsen cofounded Bye Bye Plastic Bags with her sister Isabel, 16, in her home of Bali, Indonesia.


John Goodenough
Arren Carroll

The Inventor
John Goodenough, age 96

 

In the summer of 1939, I was kayaking in Scandinavia with six German high school boys and a Finnish boy. We launched our kayaks into Finland’s Ivalo River to ride its length to Kirkenes in Norway. The Finnish boy was called back home to prepare to fight the imminent invasion by Russia; the German boys, indoctrinated by Hitler’s propaganda, received their draft notices calling them to active duty. How wasteful of human talent and resources is war. How wasteful is the exploitation of everyone’s habitat by a few in peacetime.

My regret is that we’re still making decisions based on profit margins rather than what’s best for society and for the long-term preservation of the planet. Technology is morally neutral; its value to society depends on how we use it. But our throw-away economy values profit over long-range responsibility for sustainability. We need collaboration instead of confrontation, preservation instead of exploitation, relationships instead of walls.

John Goodenough developed the lithium-ion battery and is a professor of engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.


Donna Shirley
Nick Oxford

The space pioneer
Donna Shirley, age 78

 

I was one of the first women engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and later in my career managed NASA’s automation and robotics program across several centers. It was a major step when I convinced them to invest $25 million in a Mars rover project—they’d never funded a technology demonstration with that much money before. Our little project overcame both technical and institutional barriers, and the Sojourner Truth micro­rover landed on Mars with the Pathfinder lander on July 4, 1997.

Sojourner demonstrated that a woman could manage a flight project. I was subsequently promoted to lead the Mars program and got a pay raise in a year when no one at NASA was getting a raise, but when I complained that I didn’t want a raise if the people under me weren’t getting one, an HR person took me aside and told me that I made so much less than my male peers that JPL would be in trouble with discrimination if I didn’t get a raise. Also, I learned that I only got the promotion because the guy that the JPL director wanted to give the job to didn’t want it, and he recommended me.

I regret that it was so unusual for a woman to run something like this. But there has been progress. On Pathfinder there were at most three or four women engineers, but I can now see at least a dozen when I watch launches and landings on the NASA website. There are now women in upper management at JPL, and the head of Johnson Space Center is a woman. So I think I bent a few ceilings—but the big projects are still managed by men.

Donna Shirley, former manager of Mars exploration at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is also author of Managing Martians. She lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.