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“The Future Starts Here” at the V&A

June 20, 2018
V&A Exhibition

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The V&A have put together a very interesting exhibition “The Future Starts Here”with some 100 objects selected to illustrate current trends and future possibilities. The exhibition, on until 4thNovember, is organised in five sections: Self, Public, Planet, Afterlife and “The Future is….”.

The Self section explored what it means to be human and how connectedness does not necessarily mean an end to loneliness. This first looked at the application of AI in the home – a robot laundry, called BRETT (Berkeley Robot for the Elimination of Tedious Tasks) – and moved on to cover Roman wearable technology (a ring with a door-key attached).  The extent to which biotech can actually change the human form – and has already begun to do so – blurs what is human and what is technological.  Other difficult issues around criminal profiling (remember phrenology anyone?) and staff monitoring were also raised.

In Public, issues around democracy, cities and the use of data were explored. Is direct democracy the next stage – as evidenced by an Estonian e-citizen card and flashmob demonstrations? If refugees can compete under a neutral flag at the Rio Olympics, what does that mean for nation states? Inevitably, there was a driverless car (the whole event is sponsored by VW), and zero-carbon, zero-waste cities (Masdar, Abu Dhabi).  An example of crowd-funded infrastructure (a footbridge) asks the question of whether this a better way to pay for services than taxation. We were also invited to consider what it would be like to work for an algorithm – as UberEats drivers do.

The third section, Planet, dealt with how we manage ours and whether we reach out to others, specifically Mars. After noting that we were now in the Anthropocene, a geological era shaped by mankind, there was a proposal to green the deserts with deep-rooted grasses – have we not seen the unintended consequences of eco-engineering before, in Australia for example?  3D printing in space as a way of managing inter-planetary missions seemed a more reasonable proposition.  If Mars is the answer, what was the question?

Afterlife dealt with the prospect of living forever – who would want to do that? Cryonics potentially creates the potential for freezing bodies – or just brains – until health technology can cure their illnesses.  Will we upload our experiences and knowledge to the web, and become virtual beings?  The Svalbard Global Seed Vault providing the capability to recover plant life is one thing as is, similarly, the Millennium Seed Bank at Kew , which SAMI Fellow John Reynolds helped set up. But the Long Now library, which aims to compile all the books needed to re-boot humanity in the event of a cataclysm, is surely  something of a Desert Island Discs exercise, as everyone would have their own selection – Terry Pratchett anyone?.

Finally, visitors were invited to complete the sentence, “The Future is…”.   Suggestions included “The future is vegan”, “the future is female”, “the future is slavery to AI”.

Overall, the exhibition was perhaps overly technologically optimistic: new inventions will together make our lives wonderful. There was little consideration of the fact that technology is largely value-neutral. It can be used for good or ill – human nature includes greed and the lust for power as much as goodwill and the desire for a better society.

How would you complete “The Future is….”??

The V&A is also hosting a day-long event, “Toolkit for the Future”, on 29thJune.  “Thinkers and makers question dominant futures and imagine alternative worlds, sharing perspectives on technology, politics, and speculative design”.

Written by Huw Williams, SAMI Principal

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

SAMI Consulting was founded in 1989 by Shell and St Andrews University. They have undertaken scenario planning projects for a wide range of UK and international organisations. Their core skill is providing the link between futures research and strategy.

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