May 2017 | 11 min read
Humanity is on the cusp of a technological revolution that will help it to win the fight against the forces of digital distraction that are robbing us of our most precious commodity – time.
Humanity is caught in a digital trap of its own creation that envelops us more tightly with each passing year and robs us of the time we need to fully realise our professional, personal and cultural potential.
The online technologies we have invented over the past 20 years were meant to free us from time- consuming admin tasks and gift us with extra time with which to innovate, create and play.
Instead, we are slowly drowning in a sea of emails, Tweets, Likes, and push notifications, losing minutes, hours and days each week as the online world threatens to transform us into a society of distraction addicts.
‘We must confront the very real possibility that the radically new ways in which we are living our lives today may well have profound, potentially disturbing consequences on our ability to plan for the long-term future’ – neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield.
Busyness has become a global cult, attracting worshippers ranging from the world’s wealthiest technology entrepreneurs to the hundreds of millions of workers checking their Twitter feed and email inbox every 30 seconds.
‘We like being busy because everyone else is busy,’ says Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Author of Rest and The Distraction Addiction. ‘In knowledge economies, the appearance of busyness has become a proxy for our effectiveness. As our technologies become ever faster, we can never catch up or keep up.’ The damage is plain to see.
Researchers from the American Psychological Association found that switching between tasks can cost up to 40% of a person’s productive time, while a study by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London shows that second-screening causes a greater decrease in IQ than smoking marijuana.
However, this march towards a near-future dystopia of increasingly destructive digital distraction is by no means inevitable. Clear signs are emerging that suggest that the human race will find exciting, even astonishing new ways to re-invent its tortured relationship with short-term time over the next decade.
'A band of thoughtful individuals and organisations are showing us how to get technology to deliver on its original promise – to give us more time to be creative, innovative and intuitive about the challenges ahead,’ says Tom Savigar, chief growth officer at The Future Laboratory.
Speeding up to slow down
Think of it as a fightback in 10-year stages, with humanity finding new and increasingly advanced ways to use technology to give back time rather than steal it away.
The first stage will gain momentum between now and 2025, and will involve speeding up elements of our lives – from the way our brains work to how we travel – to enable us to win back moments of rest, recuperation and contemplative downtime.
Getting to places faster will be very much in vogue as tomorrow’s globe-trotting wealthy and business classes embrace a version of hypersonic air travel that will make the late and lamented Concorde a distant memory.
Airline start-up Boom, which carries the slogan ‘Time Saved is Life Gained’, aims to have a fleet of supersonic aircraft operating between Europe and the US by 2030.
'Imagine departing from New York at 6:00am and landing at Heathrow by 2:30pm London time,’ says founder Blake Scholl. ‘You will be able to make afternoon meetings, you can stay until 9:30pm, have a full, productive day, land back in New York at 8:00pm local time and tuck your kids into bed.'
Beyond supersonic, air travel is set to go hypersonic even sooner. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is the most famous innovator in this space. After several setbacks, the company has completed a successful test flight.
Virgin Galactic is selling tickets for ‘glide flights’ (priced at £190,000 ($250,000, €230,000)), which are aimed at people who want to experience weightlessness and get incredible views of Earth from Space. Its ultimate goal, however, is to offer destination-to-destination, sub-orbital commercial flights, which will enable passengers to fly from London to Sydney in two hours.
Faster travel will enable people to claw back lost hours, and brains optimised by therapeutic treatments and drugs will enable people to work more quickly and efficiently, helping them to keep pace with the machines and clock off from the office sooner.
Luxury hospitality brands are creating the first iterations of what will eventually become a mainstream industry offering antidotes to the digital overload that steals so much of our precious time.
The Brain Power Residential Package offered by The Corinthia Hotel in London features a bespoke brain-boosting menu and a Brain Lab that helps guests to develop their mental resilience to better manage their always-on lifestyles.
The hotel’s neuroscientist in residence Dr Tara Swart believes that therapies designed to rewire our brains to find time to cope with the speed of change will be commonplace in the future.
At CES 2017, Solace Lifesciences – specialists in stress-intervention technology for athletes, pilots and top executives – unveiled ReNu, a system of amino acid supplements and micro-current patches designed to enable users to experience the regenerative effects of sleep while awake.
Poison as an antidote
Stage two of humanity’s fightback against the forces of digital distraction will involve the deployment of AI technologies, apps and platforms that help us to optimise our time.
The Time app is an early example. It streamlines – and monitors how much time users spend on – tasks. The more Time is used, the more its in-built AI learns about users’ habits. It uses this data to offer tips on boosting productivity and saving time.
As the development of apps that aid focus ramps up, they will increasingly connect with objects through the Internet of Things, enabling consumers to make real-time adjustments that help them to optimise their time more effectively.
Dr Jenny Brockis, author of Future Brain, believes that this kind of self-monitoring technology will be commonplace in the 2020s. ‘It will make the technology work for us, rather than allow us to driven by it,’ she says.
For this to happen, AI systems will need to develop that most human of attributes – a sense of intuition. Silicon Valley’s Nara Logics is demonstrating how this might happen by combining programming with neuroscience to enable its machine learning platforms to make human-like decisions.
Their ability to do so will free humans to do what they are best at, according to Kai-Fu Lee, chairman and CEO of Chinese venture capital firm Sinovation Ventures.
‘With the advent of AI, humans can finally be liberated from mechanical tasks and devote their time to more intellectual, creative and productive explorations. AI technology presents the greatest opportunity in human history’ – Kai-Fu Lee.
Seoul-based data visualisation artist and TED fellow Sey Min agrees that the increasing synergy between man and machine will enable people to make sense and use of the wealth of data provided by 24/7 connectivity – an ability that will act as a powerful corrective to the inherent time-wasting distractions of our current online existence.
‘Being able to clearly map our behaviour in the data will make us think more deeply about how we spend our time and money, which will lead to better behaviour in the future,’ she says.
Rise of the 24-hour human
There will be another stage to the fight to regain control of time in the face of accelerating digitalisation. And it’s a development that will excite some and unsettle many.
A growing number of technology visionaries believe that humans will need to become one with machines in order to keep pace with them. Failing to do so could result in humans being significantly downgraded from AI masters to AI ‘house pets’, according to Tesla founder Elon Musk.
Musk’s latest venture Neuralink aims to prevent this scenario from becoming a reality. The company’s neural lace implant will enable users to connect directly to the internet and other digital interfaces using the power of their minds.
While this might sound like the stuff of science fiction, the technology has been successfully demonstrated in mice.
In 2015, Chinese and US scientists from Harvard and Beijing’s National Center for Nanoscience and Technology announced a technique for injecting an electronic mesh into the brains of mice. Once inside, the mesh fuses with cerebral matter, enabling direct communication between the mind and machines.
Alongside Neuralink, fellow Silicon Valley start-up Kernel is building on this research to develop an internal interface implant for humans. It cites overcoming diseases such as Alzheimer’s as one of its founding motivations.
These innovators are part of a growing global technology movement that believes that the only way to match the machines is to become part-machine, incorporating networks into our bodies that process huge amounts of data, which can be interpreted through human intuition and imagination.
‘Our connection with our new creations of intelligence is limited by screens, keyboards, gestural interfaces and voice commands,’ says Braintree founder Bryan Johnson, who has invested £77m ($100m, €92m) into Kernel. ‘We have very little access to our own brains, limiting our ability to co- evolve with silicon-based machines in powerful ways.’
The implications of such advancements are huge. From instant learning to unlimited memory that can be scrolled through like a social media feed, humans will evolve to reach a new state of being. We may even develop the ability to reboot our minds, making the need for sleep less vital and fuelling the rise of fully functioning 24-hour humans.
The desire for this kind of sustained mental agility is already illustrated in the supply of Solace Lifesciences’ stress-relieving products to private clinics, professional athletes, jet pilots and business executives. Its ReNu series of supplements and patches use binaural beats to help the brain achieve the relaxation levels gained during sleep while users are awake.
‘ReNu is an opportunity to improve your lifestyle,’ says Solace Lifesciences CEO James Poole. ‘It triggers deep relaxation by mimicking patterns that the brain and body recognise as cues to relax, restore and rebuild.’
Every age has its own imagined dystopias that reflect the fears of the times. Today, we fear that the accelerating pace of technological change will overwhelm us and rob us of the ability to control how we experience time.
There are certainly reasons to be on guard – the current levels of digital overload are clearly unsustainable. But, as has happened many times in recent history, humanity is on the brink of using the technology that caused the problem to solve it. Time will tell if it helps to take us to the next logical step in our evolution – from homo sapiens to digitally enhanced homo superiors.
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