On realizing we are not alone

Written by Sjoerd Bakker
July 23, 2021

The recent Pentagon report on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena did not draw any clear conclusions regarding the presence of extraterrestrial objects on earth. It nevertheless opened (some of) our minds to the very idea that alien life forms may already be here. So far, such ideas have been confined to the realm of sci-fi and a small group of believers, but now the stigma may be lifted. What would it mean for humankind were we to realize that we are no longer “alone”? Above all, it would be another and possibly the final blow to our anthropocentric view. We have already come to accept that planet Earth is not the center of the universe, man is only an animal and our minds are far from rational. The next step would be to acknowledge that are there are other species like us, who, first and foremost, are far superior to us. While this would be a sobering realization and one that strikes fear into most of us, it could also offer hope. It would imply that civilizations actually have the potential to develop well beyond our current state, without destroying themselves or the planet they live on.

Burning questions:

  • The report has not immediately stirred debate on extraterrestrials, but could it indeed have a profound effect on our thinking in the long term?
  • Will there be major scientific efforts to study past observations and look out for new phenomena?
  • As we get closer to our first encounter with extraterrestrial intelligence, the question of communication becomes more prominent; what kind of language would we need?

India’s rise as a digital superpower

Written by Pim Korsten
July 23, 2021

New data shows that Indian start-ups raised a record amount of $7.2 billion in the first half of 2021 and the country is closing the gap with China in terms of creating new unicorns. Significantly, Chinese investors have been cut out of the Indian tech market due to regulation that was drafted after rising India-China tensions last year. As such, most foreign capital now comes from European and American investors, from countries that see India as a geopolitical partner in the bid to contain China. Furthermore, an “Indian Stack” is taking shape, driven by large public investments in India’s digital infrastructure, based on its already strong position in the IT sector, and rapid adoption of digital tools by younger generations. Add to this its strong socio-demographics (e.g. soon to be the world’s largest population that is still growing and young) and cultural fundamentals (e.g. its culture and companies having a high willingness to adopt digital tools) and India has all the ingredients to become a digital superpower. As such, the next wave of digital innovation, companies and consumer practices could come from India.

Burning questions:

  • Could the geopolitical fundamentals of India’s digital power imply that it will further the splintering of the Internet, as interoperability with – at least – Chinese applications and ecosystems could be in jeopardy?
  • Does India have a cosmology that fits the demands and technics of digital technology, a digital “cosmotechnics”? (We believe it does.)
  • What could be the organizing and governance principles of the Indian Stack? And how would this relate to other Stacks, such as the American, Chinese or European Stack?

Winter is ending

Written by Alexander van Wijnen
July 9, 2021

During the last decade, fantasy fans were served promptly by the major studios. However, in 2019, Avengers Endgame wrapped up the third phase of the Marvel Universe, Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker marked the end of the last trilogy, and season 8 of Game of Thrones meant the (preliminary) end of Westeros. Then it became quiet, “winter came”. A year later, COVID caused cinemas to close and productions to be postponed, complicating things even further. Although lockdowns spurred streaming media consumption, fantasy fans weren’t exactly spoiled. Consequently, since last year, most customer attention has turned to gaming, which has shown remarkable growth figures and is the preferred medium for younger generations. And with lockdowns ending, some media firms even fear an “attention recession”.

Yet, this might be a bit exaggerated. Behind the screens, the major studios are preparing a new cycle of high-budget fantasy adaptations, which will strongly influence the outcome of the streaming wars in the next decade, determine box offices, and could forever change theatrical window strategies (to only name a few: Lord of the Rings (2022) on Prime, Foundation (2021) on Apple TV+, and House of the Dragon (2022) on HBO max. These modern fantasy worlds are built around epic stories, comics and nostalgia that will remain attractive to aging generations. And while we are accustomed to radically prefer the art of moviemaking to that of gaming, Hollywood seems to have begun embracing gaming IP. In the next fantasy cycle, gaming IP might even become one of the most important sources of fantasy adaptations (e.g., Halo (2022) and The Last of Us (2022)).

Burning questions:

  • According to some, the time is ripe for video gaming adaptations, but which screen and format are best suitable for video gaming intellectual property?
  • How will streaming platforms change theatrical windowing?
  • To what extent will the post-COVID period see consumers return to the cinema?
  • Who will be the winners and losers in the “attention recession”?

The emergence of big tech mesh networks

Written by Arief Huhn
June 3, 2021

On June 8th Amazon will launch Amazon Sidewalk, a new wireless Mesh network which is created by connecting users’ Amazon internet-connected devices to each other. With Sidewalk, Amazon aims to create emergent infrastructure to strengthen connectivity of their consumer hardware and offer new services such as finding lost items. Similarly, Apple launched Airtags in which it uses all their users’ Apple iPhones as an emergent network to spot lost items attached to an Airtag.

As device density and bandwidth of wireless technology increases, mesh networks will become more functional and reliable and thereby more common. These more emergent ad hoc forms of infrastructure show that selling consumer hardware is not only a product play, but also a latent infrastructure play, in which the former can even be seen as a Trojan Horse for the latter. At the same this raises questions around privacy, digital sovereignty and shared value in which the consumer’s hardware and part of the consumer’s bandwidth can suddenly be used to perform valuable functions at an aggregate level.

Burning questions:

  • Which other companies could deploy similar mesh networks?
  • What other services can we expect using these types of infrastructure?
  • Can we expect open decentralized mesh networks based on open standards?

Elon Musk – What does his popularity tell us about 21st century leadership?

Written by Pim Korsten
May 12, 2021

In his opening monologue on Saturday Night Live, Elon Musk revealed he has Asperger’s syndrome. Most likely, this revelation will be used to explain his provocative appearances, mysterious tweets and memestocks and possibly even his crypto allegiances or idiosyncratic products. Yet, instead of framing him as an anomaly, we may also consider Musk a model of typical 21st century leadership.

It could be argued that our metamodern age and the complex, wicked problems of the 21st century demand new types of leadership. Also, 21st century leaders are expected to use the tools offered by the information age. They can use these (e.g. memes) to inspire and unite people in the pursuit of a utopian vision or idea to make and build a better future, to grasp the attention of large but heterogeneous groups of listeners and users in a captivating way. Leaders of countries, organizations, and communities that embody (some of) these qualities could likely become the new “metamodern heroes” of our time. In this spirit, we have already identified Trumpism as a political force that is therefore here to stay, as Trump and his paradigm hold many of these qualities. Musk could be another example, with more to come.

Burning questions:

  • Does leadership actually make a meaningful impact in, for example, business, politics and sport clubs, or are change and success largely determined by systemic, anonymous structures?
  • What are the metamodern leadership qualities that are becoming important in our time?
  • What is the relationship between technology and leadership?

Digital advertising in a post-cookie world

Written by Pim Korsten
April 2, 2021

As Google is slowly phasing out cookies on Chrome and Apple is making the Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA) opt-in, the online advertising landscape is slowly moving to a post-cookie world. Overall, this will be an improvement for consumers. The cookie era has created an opaque system of programmatic advertising between advertisers and consumers. The incomprehensible mire of players and mechanisms has led to two decades of hardly effective marketing and a strong invasion of the privacy of uninformed or ignorant consumers.

So, what will be next? The industry is already on its way to finding alternatives that bundle data across sites and apps, such as Unified ID 2.0. Furthermore, as first-party data and alternative identifiers such as email and phone number become more relevant, the dominant ad networks of Google and Facebook are likely to benefit and strengthen their duopoly. Third, Google, Apple and others are claiming that they will bring privacy-friendly advertising and metric measurement tools to the market, using cohorts instead of individuals to target audiences and decentralizing the storage of data. Fourth, we might see a partial return to the roots of advertising, with contextual data and situation taking precedence over personal data.

Burning questions:

  • How will small publishers, websites and app developers, who strongly rely on third party trackers and cookies to function or grow, survive in this world? Is an alternative subscription-based business model a viable option for these smaller players of the internet?
  • Which problems will be solved and which new problems will arise when companies such as Google and Apple use cohorts instead of individuals to target audiences?
  • Will the world be better or worse off in terms of privacy if the duopoly of Facebook and Google benefits from this shift to a post-cookie world?

Harvest now, decrypt later

Written by Sjoerd Bakker
March 17, 2021

In the coming decade, quantum computers will likely break current modes of encryption. This is not necessarily a problem for future communication and data storage, as cryptography can be made (practically) quantum-proof, but it will retroactively expose data we store and send today. That is, intelligence agencies and hackers are harvesting encrypted data, in the hope that quantum computing will help them to uncover valuable information from it in the future.

Given the fact that quantum computers will be available to institutional users first, governmental agencies will be among the first to decrypt previously harvested data. They will be looking for sensitive or strategic data that could hurt or weaken adversaries. In the long run, as technology becomes available to a broader group of users, non-state actors may take an interest in decrypting data that they can use to blackmail their victims.

While this probably won’t affect the common man so much, as most of us are not of particular interest, high-value targets may have to start worrying about the consequences of having their data exposed.

Burning questions:

  • How much information is truly sensitive after being stored for many years?
  • To what extent does the responsibility to prevent such malign uses lie with developers of quantum computers (and algorithms) and future providers of quantum cloud computing?
  • What will society look like if all of our online data were decrypted and for everyone to see?

Non-fungible tokens are all the rage

Written by Arief Hühn
March 17, 2021

Do you remember CryptoKitties, the virtual cats that collectors spent thousands of dollars to buy on the blockchain? They seem to have been merely the forerunners of the currently faddish non-fungible tokens (NFTs). In essence, any digital asset that a creator wants to make unique can be turned into an NFT (digital works of art, music, sports moments, and even tweets) and monetized. The NFT acts as a non-duplicable digital certificate of ownership; it will be stored on the blockchain and can be bought and sold like any piece of property. While the digital asset itself will still exist on the Internet, only the buyer of the NFT can call himself the owner of the “original” asset. As such, NFTs can be a financial investment, a sentimental purchase, or a collector’s item. NFTs can even contain smart contracts that, for instance, give the creator a cut of any future sale of the token. Although opinions on NFTs vary, once the hype around the space settles down, the idea of tradable digital assets will be here to stay.

Burning questions:

  • Which industries are next in line to make use of NFTs?
  • How will the tokenization of art and music influence the production and experience of these cultural items?
  • What will be the consequences of the introduction of digital scarcity for digital economies?
  • Will we be able to reliably connect NFTs to physical items?

The unique strength of Chinese business alliances

Written by Alexander van Wijnen
March 9, 2021

Geely, one of China’s biggest automakers, has announced strategic partnerships with Tencent, Baidu and Faraday Future. Li Shufu, founder of Geely, argues that these partnerships are inspired by the School of Vertical and Horizontal Alliances, a school of thought from ancient China’s Warring States period that urges weaker organizations to cooperate in order to compete with incumbent powers. It may be difficult to determine whether Li’s vision is markedly different from regular strategic cooperation between companies. However, there seems to be a unique quality to the cooperation of Chinese tech firms. Geely, Tencent, Baidu and Alibaba create collective business models to an extent that U.S. tech firms such as Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple do not. Besides the School of Vertical and Horizontal Alliances, the idea of guanxi capitalism, which assigns high importance to interpersonal relationships, further adds to the importance of such cooperation within the Chinese economy. Furthermore, the developmental state tradition of China places the Chinese state at the center of facilitating such cooperation. In the coming years, Chinese business alliances will likely gain importance and could increasingly come to create a global competitive advantage for Chinese tech firms.

Burning questions:

  • To what extent do Chinese business alliances create a competitive advantage over the U.S. and Europe?
  • Does Li’s reference to the School of Vertical and Horizontal Alliances reflect the growing tensions between the Chinese state and Chinese tech firms?

Crowdsourcing morality for autonomous systems

Written by Sjoerd Bakker
February 25, 2021

With the advent of autonomous machines, such as autonomous vehicles, robots and even weapons, comes a need to embed some kind of morality into these machines. By definition, autonomous systems have to make choices of their own accord, to go left or right, to kill or not to kill, and we want these choices to reflect our own values and norms. One way of achieving this is for developers to translate explicit normative rules into code. Another way, arguably more democratic, is to crowdsource morality. For instance, by asking the public to “vote” on all sorts of moral dilemmas (e.g. the well-known trolley problem) or to let autonomous systems learn from our actual behavior (e.g. from observing how we drive). Interestingly, such forms of crowdsourcing could actually result in autonomous systems whose behavior aligns with local values and norms, instead of some kind of desired universal morality. The downside, however, would be that those systems, especially those that mimic our behavior, would not be able to make “better” decisions than we humans can.

Burning questions:

  • Would these forms of crowdsourcing morality lead to increased public trust in autonomous systems and allow for greater societal acceptance?
  • Is the end-goal of moral AI systems to have them align with our norms and values, or is there potential for robots to behave better than we do?
  • Could machines ever become morally superior to humans and what would this mean for the future of humanity?