“What’s past is prologue.” So says the famed quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, alleging that we can look to what has already happened as an indication of what will happen next.

This idea could be interpreted as being rather bleak; are we doomed to repeat the errors of the past until we correct them? We certainly do need to learn and re-learn life lessons—whether in our work, relationships, finances, health, or other areas—in order to grow as people.

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We’re a long way from the halcyon days of the early internet, when the promise of a decentralized digital communications network meant anyone could talk to anyone without appealing to the gatekeepers. Knowledge would be liberated from elite newsrooms and stodgy old encyclopedia sets. “Information wants to be free” was the slogan of the day.

We’ve since learned “free” information often has a price.

Fast-forward to 2019, when science fiction author Neal Stephenson’s book, Fall; or Dodge in Hell, traces a near future in which the internet is nicknamed the “Miasma.” The digital haves and have-nots are separated by who can afford human “editors” to curate the web, filter out the rubbish, and guard their employers’ identities and information online. There are those privileged enough to float above the noise, selectively dipping in for reliable information, and those drowning in, and being driven mad by, the mass of disinformation and propaganda lurking below.

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Artificial Intelligence (AI)

As artificial intelligence (AI) systems take on more tasks and solve more problems, it’s hard to say which is rising faster: our interest in them or our fear of them. Futurist Ray Kurzweil famously predicted that “By 2029, computers will have emotional intelligence and be convincing as people.”

We don’t know how accurate this prediction will turn out to be. Even if it takes more than 10 years, though, is it really possible for machines to become conscious? If the machines Kurzweil describes say they’re conscious, does that mean they actually are?

Perhaps a more relevant question at this juncture is: what is consciousness, and how do we replicate it if we don’t understand it?

In a panel discussion at South By Southwest titled “How AI Will Design the Human Future,” experts from academia and industry discussed these questions and more.

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