With Part 3 of INFORM’s novella set for release at this year’s Smart Digital Ports of the Future Conference (#SDP19) in Rotterdam, we took the opportunity to sit down with the co-authors of 2038: A Smart Port Story, INFORM’s Senior Vice-President Dr. Eva Savelsberg and Marketing Manager Matthew Wittemeier, for an exclusive deep-dive into all things 2038.
If you’re new to the 2038 world, Part 1 of 2038: A Smart Port Story was launched at #SPSC18 in October 2018. PTI’s then-editor Richard Joy wrote at the time, “I was a little unsure of what to make of the idea… What I found was a delight. A piece of writing that took the concept of futuristic port operations and turned the way in which we look at them on its head.”
Part 2 was released at this year’s #CTAC19 event in London with Matthew Wittemeier taking the audience on a journey into the future to interview the main AI character, Athena, live on stage.
The response was so exceptional that PTI has partnered with INFORM, the Official AI Partner of #SDP19, to bring Athena back to life in a bi-weekly series, The Athena Interviews, leading up to the conference in November.
PTI: What was the inspiration behind 2038: A Smart Port Story?
Matthew: We had presented a couple of times on emerging technology in the terminal sector and wanted to turn that presentation into a technical paper.
However, after several drafts, we realized that while the presentation was engaging, creating something that was as equally interesting to read was proving to be a challenge. Then Eva rang, I think she was actually on holiday, with an idea.
Eva: Yeah, I’d read the latest draft of the paper, and while it was written well, I asked myself, who would read it? The answer was, pretty much no one.
If you weren’t interested in technology to begin with, you certainly wouldn’t have read it. So, I asked the team, why don’t we turn this into a “short story” instead – there was a long pause.
Matthew: There were mixed reactions to the idea. We’d never done anything like it, and there was also a lot of time pressure. But Eva sent through a rough outline of a plot, and we set to work writing. The rest, as they say, is history…
PTI: What was the main takeaway from Part 1?
Eva: Technology is now, and will continue to, permeate the port sector, the business world, and society in general at an ever-increasing rate, and in ways that are difficult to imagine.
The pace of technological adaption has never been faster. In 20 years, the pace of innovation will define the business. Those who don’t keep up with technology will lose their competitive advantage.
Throughout Part 1, the reader is guided through a technologically advanced future port environment that adheres to these ideas. But, as with all things in life, the unintentional side effects and social costs of a future that has evolved to rely so heavily on technology begin to emerge.
PTI: Which is where Part 2 picks up the story?
Matthew: That’s right. You could say Part 1 was about the technology, largely, and Part 2 is about its impact on society. That said, Part 2 isn’t a technology void.
It expands outward to consider broader social technology ideas like universal access to data storage that surrounds one’s digital identity, including digital shadows and even the core-essence of how we communicate with each other. Cybersecurity is also a theme that underpins the entire story.
PTI: What is the largest social issue you look at in 2038?
Eva: 2038 envisages a future where technology has displaced an entire class of society. Naturally, these individuals come together in an organized resistance called “Anti-techs.”
This idea stems from the very real proposition of job loss due to technology we see today with the Fourth Industrial Revolution and, in the ports sector, through automation.
At INFORM, we firmly believe that technology, especially advanced AI-based technology like INFORM’s solutions, is there to support the human operators, not replace them.
This said, 2038 afforded us the flexibility to look at a future where companies do render humans irrelevant through the implementation of technology.
Matthew: I would add to this that we also spent a good deal of time discussing the impact that AI and AI 2.0 (advanced, self-aware AI systems) would have on our future.
While self-aware AI is probably still quite a ways off, it is foreseeable. What we do, or don’t do today, will define these technologies. Part 1 looks at the advantages of AI. In Part 2, we look at some of the disadvantages.
PTI: In your “#CTAC38” keynote and again in The Athena Interviews series, you talk about the “AI 2.0 Ethics Act of 2029”. Do you think that an act like this should come to exist?
Matthew: So we’re all on the same page, in the fictional world of 2038, the “AI 2.0 Ethics Act of 2029” sets out guidelines and restrictions for the development of advanced artificial intelligence systems. There are two key elements to the act.
First, the central processing unit of any AI must be contained in a physical CPU unit – it can not be uploaded to the cloud. Second, all services that maintain the CPU must be provided and overseen by humans.
As such, power and regular maintenance, which keeps the AI system running, are provided at the discretion of their human counterparts.
Athena argued in the interviews that the Act was designed to ensure human relevance as opposed to one that contributes to the design goals on an AI system.
Eva: As noted before, we spent a lot of time debating AI and its impact. The simple truth is that AI can be used to enable a business or society, but it can also be used for nefarious purposes, too.
What’s more, even with the best intentions, AI can lead to very unexpected outcomes. Athena gives the example of Google’s AI “cheating” on learning tasks or Amazon’s HR AI having a bias towards male candidates.
I’m certain the developers of these systems didn’t design them this way, but nevertheless, they ended up delivering unintended results. In both cases, the ability of humans to intervene is obviously necessary.
PTI: How have you enjoyed creating the trilogy?
Matthew: What started as a fun way to explore emerging technologies quickly grew into a medium to explore the impacts of those technologies on our future.
When you consider the day-to-day role of a marketing professional in the software industry, creating fantasy futures isn’t in your normal job description.
Having the flexibility to think and talk about how what we’re doing today might affect the future of everyone is really enriching.
Eva: As co-authors, Matthew and I have had many a conversation about technology – conversations one wouldn’t normally have. In the early drafts of the story, Matthew and I had different views on the plot.
We both wanted to go separate directions. As co-authors, we had to work through that. Luckily, we did. In laying out a plot to form a storyline that we hoped would be interesting, we really got to explore the social impacts of technology. Inevitably, this has led to many healthy debates on what and how technologies will reshape our future.
Matthew: Part 2 was significantly harder to write then Part 1. When we wrote Part 1, we didn’t have any expectations. We just set out to write about technology in an engaging, fun way. Given the positive response we saw, we decided to invest the time and creative resources to bring Part 2 to life.
Eva: We knew from the end of Part 1, which focused on technology, that Part 2 would focus more on the social aspects of technology. In our early sessions working through the timeline and plot, I recall the buzz, the energy in the room, when we figured out a clever way to move the story forward. We were both sitting there and thinking – Wow!
Matthew: Interestingly, when we got to writing Part II, we quickly realized that there was no way to unpack the social aspects in the same word count as Part 1.
Part 2 is just over three times longer than the first part. And, when you think about it, you can see this reveals something truly telling about technology and society.
While technology can be complex to develop, once it is out there, it is fairly straight forward. But you can’t really ever foresee the impact it will have on society and dealing with the societal impacts takes time. It takes dialog. It takes patience.
Eva: Yes, this is really a key takeaway of 2038 so far. Given that the pace of technological innovation is only quickening, thinking about the social impact of technology is something every technology provider needs to do now.
PTI: What’s been the biggest challenge in writing 2038 so far?
Eva: Keeping the “short story” short. We set out to write a short story. I remember one of the early plotlines wrapped the entire story up in 4,000 words – but it was too forced. It was pleasant to read, but it didn’t resonate with you or leave you really interested.
I went back to Matthew and said, “Let’s turn this into a crime story, add some mystery and suspense.” He didn’t love the idea initially, but in doing so, it definitely pushed it in the right direction.
The unintended result, of course, is our short story has turned into a novella, and perhaps by the time Part 3 is done, a novel. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Matthew: It is true; I didn’t love the idea of a crime story. It isn’t a genre of literature that I read much, but it has turned out to be so much fun to explore and write in.
For me, the biggest challenge was writing a story that felt natural, that there weren’t large jumps to get the reader from point A to point B. We decided early into Part 2, at about 8,000 words, to forgo a word-count restriction and just tell the story.
The result has been something so much bigger than originally intended, but it has allowed us to really build out the world of 2038, to develop the characters, and to delve into real detail on the technology and social aspects of the piece.
PTI: Can you give us any hints of what to expect in the final Part 3?
Eva: We’re aiming for an ending that you maybe wouldn’t have seen coming – but this is entirely dependent on whom you think the antagonist is right now…
Matthew: I’m not giving anything away, other than to say that Part 3 will have an ending, so to speak…