UIX: When the future comes to West Michigan, will we be ready?

The future is on its way in the form of advanced technologies and artificial intelligence. In some corners of West Michigan, it's already here, and it's changing the ways we connect with each other, the ways we work with each other, and the ways we write new laws. But, the question remains: Are we ready to embrace it?

She may not live anywhere near Grand Rapids, but the world's first 150-year-old has likely already been born.


This is what cybersecurity expert Nick Defoe tells me over a phone conversation. Between pointing out other curious facts from the timeline that stretches between today and the future, he has to restrain himself from checking other alerts on his smartphone.


When the future does arrive, it very well may ask you to enable push notifications.


Like many others alive today, Defoe was raised during a period of incredible technological advances. He remembers programming games on an old MS-DOS computer as a child, and followed that love for new technologies all the way to a career. And, also like many, he is both excited about the future and a little worried.


Humans have been getting smarter with every passing generation. Thanks to written language, and now the internet, there's hardly an excuse nor the possibility not to be. The standardized tests given to high school students in 1960 are more in line with grade-school levels today, and this advancement in knowledge has given way to leaps forward in science and engineering.


Life expectancy has more than tripled in just a few generations thanks to our mastery of modern medicine. Of course, all of those people are going to need somewhere to live, not to mention work and play. Meanwhile, the world seems to get smaller every September with new smart devices that make the computers just a few decades earlier seem like remnants of a primitive society.


Consider this scenario:


Through a telemedicine system, a doctor is able to offer advice and diagnose clients from anywhere on earth. Speaking with a new patient who is experiencing flu-symptoms, the doctor can prescribe the right antibiotics to treat his patient without ever meeting them "IRL." Moments later, an autonomous vehicle arrives to pick up the patient and drop her off at a the nearest pharmacy, no human skill involved.


Dr. John Deveau speaks with patients over video chat.
As the car leaves the ailing woman's home, location services in her smartphone trigger lights turning off in her house. Her stereo system shuts off, her front door locks, her furnace idles at a more economical temperature, and she hasn't yet lifted a finger.


Behind the scenes, the doctor tags the patient's address with the symptoms she was experiencing. An artificial intelligence platform analyzes that and other similar databases to predict the flu's aggressiveness and vector, giving the doctor even more information to work with when helping the next person who calls looking for relief.


In this universe, action creates data, which prepares the next action, which creates more data. Humans and technology live nearly symbiotically.


In an alternate universe, the woman continues on with her life, never having called the doctor, never having revealed her suffering, prepared to weather another flu season, red-nosed and miserable.


At this moment in time, we have the option to take either path. The woman in both examples could veritably come from 2019, though just a few years ago, the first example would seem like magic. Perhaps a few years from now, the second will seem masochistic.


Futurism is the practice of accepting either scenarios as possible, keeping the mind open to accept what could happen, given what we already know, and even after that.


Renowned futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts that artificial intelligence will soon outpace human intelligence. That's not to say we will live in a world dominated by Skynet. Alexa, Siri, and Bixby are hardly friends, let alone allied in conquest. Humans are still in charge of the machines, but that begs another question: Do they really know what they are doing?


In late November 2018, a petri dish in a Chinese lab drew the attention of most every science-minded individual and medical professional in the world. Probably the eyes of a few parents, too. The scientist working in the lab had just announced something never-before thought possible. Human DNA had been successfully edited using Crispr technology. The world's first genetically edited twin girls were born that month, imbued with a genetic resistance to H.I.V.


There's little proof to show the scientist's "experiment" worked, but few are denying the possibility that Crispr could be applied to other areas of the human genome, and successfully.


To some, that's a man-made miracle. To others, it's horrifying.


Technology can be used for good or for ill, Christian says, though it's hardly ever that simple. And, while that determination is being made, it's the responsibility of the legal field to close the gap between what’s possible and what’s legal.


There is no law that says a scientist cannot edit the DNA of an unborn child. Not because it's perfectly fine to do, but because the law was never given a chance to consider the practice before it became a possibility.


Daniel S. Christian
"The pace of technological change has changed," says Daniel S. Christian, M.S. Ed., and Instructional Services Director at Western Michigan University Cooley Law School. "No longer are we on a slow, gradual slope of linear/steady change. We are now on an exponential trajectory of change."


Of course, change is not easy. In many cases, it's the last thing humans want.


"Here in the United States, if we were to personify things a bit, it’s almost like society is anxiously calling out to an older sibling (i.e., emerging technologies), 'Heh! Wait up!!!'" Christian says. "This trend has numerous ramifications."


Out of those ramifications, Christian names three main points that society will have to address to fully understand, make use of, and make practical, future technologies.


1. The need for the legal/legislative side of the world to close the gap between what’s possible and what’s legal


2. The need for lifelong learning and to reinvent oneself


3. The need to make pulse-checking/futurism an essential tool in the toolbox of every member of the workforce today and in the future


To keep up with our pace of technological change, "lawyers, judges, representatives, and senators – and citizens at large actually – need more resources that they can tap into in order to better understand the surrounding landscapes, and to learn more about the advantages and disadvantages (pitfalls) of the emerging technologies around us," Christian says. "Which technologies should get rolled out? Which should not? Or, on a more granular level, which features should get implemented and which features should not get implemented?"


Laws are not only required in the realm of artificial intelligence, but directly impacted by it. The Lexisnexis Legal & Professional database is one of the legal profession's greatest tools, providing access to millions of court documents and articles. Being a construct of the World Wide Web, it's well suited for automation, leaving insights up to scraping algorithms, all but reducing the legal system to an app. Because those algorithms are a construct of humans, however, may mean that they lack the jurisprudence of "Law Classic."


You won't find iJustice in the app store just yet, but AI is already a part of the system, taking on some of the responsibilities previously charged to a paralegal. Among them:

  • Helping lawyers perform due diligence and research

  • Providing additional insights through analytics

  • Automating processes (including writing) in legal work

"Emerging technologies are starting to impact employment within the legal field – as well as the relevant individual job descriptions, duties, and necessary skill sets," Christian says.


Future jobs


Artificial intelligence, occasionally even technology in general, has long been labeled a threat to the human workforce. Today, it's also helping it thrive. Humans are not only creating new forms of work involving emerging technologies, they are using AI to predict when and where to find it.


According to Linda Chamberlain, Ph.D., Endowed Chair in Entrepreneurship & Innovation, Frederik Meijer Honors College at Grand Valley State University, a group of citizens, community based organizations, businesses and educators called Future State have been working together since July 2018, focusing on convening community organizations to develop sustainable business solutions through research, dialogue, and innovation.


"This is a challenge that we gave ourselves that called on workforce development or employability in the age of the artificial intelligence economy," Chamberlain said. "We are worried about employability and skills and making sure people are ready to enter the workforce, but where's the puck going?


"If we look at the skills that are going to be needed 5 to 10 years from now, how are we preparing our citizens for that economy?"


Artificial intelligence will likely play a large role in some of the jobs of the future. But, rather than fear which will be consumed by AI, jobseekers should rather look at the new opportunities that are being created.


Using a design thinking approach, Future State explored ways in which individuals of all ages and skill could funnel their talents into those new opportunities, They interviewed CEOs. former convicts, parents, students, and anyone else who represents the Michigan workforce.


"We did a lot of research on the question of 'what is AI? What does it look like? What do all the experts say about this?' And then we also went out and interviewed citizens," Chamberlain says. "So the working group of about 25 people has met every other week since September, and we were facilitated through this process."


The Future State group spent its initial few months determining what new jobs we may see in Michigan, what skillsets Michigan's workforce is made up of, and where there might be gaps between the two.


During the first half of 2019, they are working to fill those gaps, using an AI platform to analyze data from applicants all over Michigan.


"One of the major elements of this innovation was using technology to help anybody that that really wants to determine their current status or skillset, their technology literacy, and then direct them towards appropriate training," Chamberlain says.


Once applicants achieve certain skill set milestones, they are connected to jobs that require those skills while the software “learns” the jobseeker.


“The great thing about artificial intelligence or machine learning is how it makes our life more convenient,” Chamberlain says. “It will continue to work with you to make sure that your skills are current, you are capable, and you are prepared for new opportunities.”


Chamberlain says Future State has so far been a great success. The applicants and stakeholders have become invested in the process, and committed to each others’ success.


In talking to one stakeholder, a 19-year-old with a previous criminal record, the group was astounded to learn he had advanced talents.


“He says, ‘I got a record I can't get a job anywhere but I can code.’” Chamberlain says. “And we were like, ‘excuse me, if you can code let's talk work.’ But then, there are all these silly barriers we create, like he's got to have a high school diploma so an employer knows he can code.”


Though technology plays a starring role in the future, embracing sea changes in culture and the legal field may someday be necessary to unleash the tide of employment that could raise all ships. Some rules are meant to be broken, or at least left behind, and Future State is uncovering which may be up for revision.


Future safety


Working in cybersecurity gives Defoe, Senior Information Security Consultant at VDA Labs, LLC, a good picture of how often corporate data breaches and malicious hacking takes place. Many companies that rely on technology are adding advanced layers of protection to keep their records safe, but that’s only a reliable solution until it isn’t.


For example, just over a decade ago, professors in universities around the country held the common practice of posting students’ grades outside their lecture halls after a quiz or test. If those universities used social security numbers as student IDs, there’s a good chance those students had their personal data compromised on a regular basis.


It’s almost an implied guarantee that a system will eventually be hacked. If that system contains your social security details, your banking information, or even your route to work, you could find yourself trying to track down a nameless, faceless threat for who knows how long.


“You have to kind of assume that any data that you're providing about yourself to a third party, whether that's a company or government, or whatever that is, may likely get breached in the future,” Defoe says. “That's a scary thought, but something that we have get our heads around accepting and moving on from there.”


Security is a major concern for any conversation about the future, but it doesn’t have to be the only one. Other advances are providing us with new, clean, almost inexhaustible sources of energy. More and more businesses are incorporating solar and wind energy sources, renewable building materials, and sustainable business practices to make sure that when the future arrives, it’s to a planet we can still live on.


“I'm really hopeful that that's going to continue and make a big impact in the future,” Defoe says. “Not only do renewable energies offer the environmental benefits, but job creation from those technologies has grown very quickly as well.”


Grand Rapids is on track to get 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2025. That’s a remarkable achievement for any city, and GR is poised to take advantage of new technological opportunities as they arise.


Future conversations


Talking about the future is inherently a risk. Especially when estimating decades out, there’s no small amount of divination involved. Judging from trends, we might be able to predict the cost of food and fuel will continue to go up, while that of the world’s most powerful microprocessors will go down. The world’s reliance on inorganic materials may shift as landfills are developed into sustainable business parks, and communities will be able to deliver a higher quality of life to residents by providing them with environmental data.


Our reliance on technology will undoubtedly increase, but what gets much less attention is our reliance on each other. The form of communication that exists outside of a smartphone will likely still exist in the distant future. What that sounds like, we may not know until we get there.


Hopefully, we live that long.


Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at [email protected].


Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.

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