Neurotech, Space/Time, Reality, Surveillance and Privacy.
Disclaimer: the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this post belong solely to us, and not to our employers.
We are both working in VC funds. The main reason we do this job is because we enjoy reading and thinking about new technologies and new trends. In the recent years a lot has been written on entrepreneurship and businesses such as social networks, mobile apps, marketplaces, eCommerce or SaaS. We still follow these industries and love it. But we also started witnessing the emergence of strong technological and political trends that, we think, will impact our society by a stronger order of magnitude. These 3 trends are: Neurotech and other technologies related to the brain, Surveillance & Privacy, and finally the different revolutions in fundamental physics and the tech which are changing our perception of Space/Time & Reality.
We are not experts in these fields and there are people who are much knowledgeable than us. We are just two curious guys who want to share interesting reads and their random thoughts to spark conversations. We believe these three trends are significant ones that will shape tomorrow’s world and society and we believe that all three are deeply linked. If you look at the major internet companies, most of them are working on the three in parallel (Facebook is betting a lot on mix reality, neurotech and “surveillance”, so are Google and Amazon).
For this first edition we’ll briefly describe these trends at a macro level and try to answer the question ‘Why is this trend accelerating now?”
In the following issues we’ll focus on specific aspects and cover them in more depth.
The human brain as the next tech platform
The secret reason why we’re both interested in Neurotech is because it’s probably our best chance to get our own ‘dysfunctional’ brains fixed (nothing bad, just being a bit crazy). And our hopes are high as plenty of researchers, big companies and startups are innovating at every layer of the stack:
- Hardware layer: a variety of approaches are tested to see which BCIs (Brain Computer Interfaces) are the best not only to record what’s going on in our heads and extract “data”, but also to “inject data” and act on our brains. From invasive devices implanted directly in the brain to non-invasive ones such as headbands or VR headsets.
- “Operating System” Layer: extracting data / signals is only one part of the equation. We also need to interpret it. And that’s the aim of several companies which seek to build the first brain / computer middleware. These middleware will enable developers to build applications on top of them.
- Application Layer: reading, interpreting and sending back data are what will enable us to develop real applications. If we all immediately think of healthcare and the potential of Neurotech to cure diseases, the scope of application actually goes much further. Whether it’s to make us interact faster with computers by directly reading our thoughts/brainwaves, or applications to make us learn faster or just to play video games, the number of use cases is huge (see our mindmap below for more examples).
But where are we now?
Before I can share my public API key to a developper so she can upload her application to my brain we have a loooonnnng way to go. There are countless obstacles to overcome.
At the hardware level it’s still unclear what’s the best way to extract data at scale (we’re currently very limited by the amount of data we can extract in real time from our brain) and how we’ll be able to do it without having to drill holes in everyone’s skull (BCIs need to be as little intrusive as possible). Also we still don’t understand how the brain works exactly, so it’s not even sure that we can ever build a general purpose OS to interact with it. In terms of “applications” we already have some real examples (ex: identify simple yes/no answers given by locked-in patients, command prosthetic limbs) which are fantastic but have a lot of room for improvement.
Why is this trend accelerating now?
- Thanks to cheaper and better sensors it’s getting easier to “extract” data from the brain and to “inject” data too.
- Thanks to machine learning it’s getting easier to understand brain signals ie : this signal means the brain is seeing a dog or the letter A, this signal shows that the brain is in deep sleep or this signal shows this person is about to fall in love etc.
- More money is going to neurotech projects because it’s the future of human/computer interfaces. And the money is coming from successful entrepreneurs (Elon Musk with Neurolink or Bryan Johnson with Kernel), big companies like Facebook which has 60 researchers working on “an interface that would allow people to type at 100 words a minute straight from their brain” (see The Economist article shared below for more info) and from VCs who increasingly invest in such projects.
Our must-reads this month:
- The Economist published a very complete report on the state-of-the-art of Brain-Computer Interfaces.
- Here are two concrete examples of what we can do by reading brainwaves: guess the picture that you are thinking of, anticipate your behavior when you’re driving.
Space/Time & Reality
Reality needs a reality check
I know some robots will read this post but let’s assume that you are an Homo sapiens. What do we all have in common? Maybe you’ll answer us the reality we live in, which consists of the three dimension of space and one dimension of time.
However we believe that our perception of Space/Time & Reality is going to evolve tremendously in the coming years / decade.
Several revolutions are happening in fundamental physics with progress made in a variety of theories (such as the Quantum Loop and String ones) that give us a new perspective on the nature of time. For instance some researchers suggest that what we believe is “time passing” is simply the result of how our sensors (brain, nerves…) process data, but there is no “before” or “after”. We’re just interpreting a codebase already fully written.
There isn’t a universal clock ticking at the same time for everything in our universe (think of the famous Twin Paradox, if a twin travels at the speed of light and the other stays on earth the time). As with most revolutionary idea (the time paradox idea dates back to the beginning of the 20th century with Einstein’s theory) it takes time (ahah) for humanity to “internalize” it. We haven’t fully grasped the implications of these theories. Maybe the way our perception of Space/Time and Reality is evolving will be similar to what people felt when they understood that earth was not flat (I mean some people still…) or that there were other planets out there. It sounds obvious to us now, but they were probably unbelievable ideas for the majority of people at the time.
Side note: at the risk of repeating ourselves, we are in no way physics experts or pretend that we understand / know a lot about fundamental physics. We are just two naive amateurs who find these ideas fascinating, are reading about them and want to share their enthusiasm.
Research on the nature of space and time are literally mind blowing and we will follow those trends. But the “end” of reality will be more tangible in the coming years through technological progress and some concrete applications already in the wild.
- Virtual reality. This is clearly the most obvious one. We can now create from scratch (or from “chips”) realistic virtual worlds in which we immerge our senses. It’s starting with our eyes and ears (VR headsets), but it’ll go further with the other senses (think of haptic suits).
- Augmented reality/Mix reality : Imagine you are in a room with two of your friends. You are all looking at the coffee table through your smartphone that has just been updated with ARkit. From the outside, an observer just sees 3 people looking at a coffee table. But each of you can be looking at a something different: one may be looking inside the engine of a car, the other a lion walking on the table and the third the 3d projection of the latest Super Bowl highlights. Now imagine that it’s not through your phone, but through the Magic Leap glasses, or directly through contacts lens on your eyeballs. Who knows who is watching what ? More creepy, imagine that what you see through your lenses / glasses is decided by an algorithm.
- Fake reality : Fake news is making the headlines everywhere with countries such as France trying to ban them or Facebook working on ways to control the spreading of fake news. But things are now getting way beyond fake news reports. With the progress of Deep Learning applied to computer vision you can now create fake videos (see the porn example below) or fake voice that impersonate real people. So what you see and what you hear is not necessarily what is happening/has happened. And it’ll be increasingly hard to tell real from fake.
- New ways of transportation : ok this is less science fiction but if the time to go from SF to LA or London to NY is divided by 10x or more, our relationship to space will evolve. Autonomous vehicle, Hyperloop, Elon Musk rockets to send people from NYC to Shanghai in less than one hour. All those progress in transportation will also change our relationship to space.
- Special drugs designed to make us see the Matrix.
If our reality is indeed made of data/information that our sensors receive and that our brain processes and then projects, there is a lot of space for tech to alter this experience. Thanks to technology we can now “feel and see” much more than we were used to.
Our must-reads this month:
- Great interview of Edward Witten : A physicist’s physicist ponders the nature of reality
- Magic Leap finally announced the release of its long awaited mix reality glasses.
- Progress of Deep learning and computer vision allows everybody to swap actors faces on movies : Fake Porn : how can you you create fake porn videos (SFW) or if you are not into porn get Nicolas Cage instead of Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones
- One of the main issue of virtual reality is that people cannot see there body (mostly hands) : well not anymore.
Surveillance & Privacy
Q: What’s your business model? A: Predict and modify human behavior.
We now live in the “information civilization”. The amount of data we each generate is ever increasing: at work, when we browse the internet, when we post on social media, go out with our smartphones, drive or with our wearable technologies. And the amount of data produced about us without our explicit consent is also exploding (think of public surveillance cameras, Google Street cars taking picture of your home or collecting data about your private wifi, Facebook auto-tagging picture feature etc.).
What can be done with this data is increasingly becoming either amazing or terrifying, depending on how you look at it. The number one risk with surveillance is not only the lack of liberty and the fact that you cannot have secrets anymore, but it is the risk of companies and States gaming your data and trick you to act differently. Think of a Uber driver seeing a new customer not far when he is about to stop is shift, think of facebook showing you news A more than news B to keep you using the app longer…
Here are three trends that are already shaping our “data powered” society and that we’ll cover in more depth in the next months:
- Surveillance Capitalism.
- State Surveillance.
- “Anti-surveillance” & “privacy first” technologies.
1. Surveillance capitalism
According to Zuboff the information civilization, that we now live in, has given birth to a new form of capitalism: surveillance capitalism. The two dominant forms of capitalism in the 20th century were built on the accumulation of production power (to mass produce goods) and the accumulation of financial assets. The newest form of capitalism is based on the accumulation of data.
To do what?
Quoting Zuboff: “This new form of information capitalism aims to predict and modify human behavior as a means to produce revenue and market control.”
Thinks of Google ads or Facebook feed.
Google is the first “surveillance capitalist” firm to have reached hyperscale. But more have since emerged (Facebook) or are going toward that direction (Amazon, Uber) and this business model is becoming the norm for startups in an “AI powered” world (predict behaviors and influence users).
2. State surveillance
But private firms are not the only entities which find interest in extracting and accumulating as much data about us as possible. Many States are going the same direction and what was once depicted as a dystopian future is almost reality in certain parts of the world (see this article about the experiments conducted in China).
What’s interesting is that this appetite for “data domination” creates huge tensions between the States and the Google or Facebook. They are clashing at many levels like Google facing several lawsuits because of the data they collect without any consent for Google Street. And some countries start to put obstacles in front of these firms, such as GDPR in Europe, that aim at giving more power back to the users (whether or not it will work is another debate).
Which direction States are going to follow in this “information age” and how their relationships with the surveillance capitalist firms will develop are two topics that will impact deeply our society in the years / decades to come.
3. “Anti-surveillance” & “privacy first” technologies
And what about us? The people caught in the middle? If some don’t care and are perfectly fine with abandoning privacy to benefit from highly personalized services, others would like to have more control. In that perspective an increasing number of tools are tackling these issues, and they are used by more and more people:
- Web browsing: Tor network (which usage has doubled the past 2 years), web browsers such as Brave, search engines such as DuckDuckGo (which usage has doubled the past 2 years) etc.
- Messaging: Signal, Telegram (which has over 100M active users) etc.
- Anti-surveillance: clothes to trick surveillance cameras, invisibility glasses to trick face recognition software, umbrellas to hide from drones, anti-data sniffing underwear (all of them exist and are listed in our mindmap below).
- Closed internet: private peer-to-peer networks, mesh networks…
Our must-reads this month:
- Inside China’s vast new experiment in social ranking.
- On Seriously Rethinking the Digital Economy
- Surveillance is the business model of the internet
- U.S. soldiers are revealing sensitive and dangerous information by jogging via @Olyvyer