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Futurist brings realistic optimism to ASU.
How to get a good view of the future? Embrace the dystopian fear.
Brian David Johnson surveys the future of tech at ASU.
January 25, 2016

Brian David Johnson joins ASU as futurist who isn't afraid to confront the fears of a dystopia to build safe tomorrow

Brian David Johnson is smarter than you are. 

Don’t feel threatened by that statement. Find hope in it. Because Johnson’s job isn’t to run around the globe gloating in his intellectual superiority; rather, he’s a frequent flier whose greater purpose is to help people confront their fears by surveying the future.

This is why Johnson is smarter than you or I: He doesn’t hide from the fears of tomorrow’s dystopias; he embraces these concerns in hopes of helping us avoid them. 

Brian David Johnson

Johnson (pictured at left) will continue that mission at Arizona State University this semester as its futurist in residence at the Center for Science and Imagination, and as a Professor of Practice in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society.

His greatest asset in this fight is people’s imagination. The author and technologist — who’s best known as the futurist at Intel — wants to challenge the students at ASU, and the people of the Valley community, to use their creativity to construct a better vision of the future for all.

Johnson’s time at ASU will be focused on two things: His Future of the American Dream project and 21st Century Robot, which aims to give every child the ability to build his or her own robot. He recently took time for a phone interview to talk about these projects and how fear shouldn’t be a motivator to regulating technology.

Question: Let’s start with the obvious question for a futurist working at Intel — what technology will we want in five years?

Answer: Well, as we move to the year 2020 ... the size of (a computer) chip begins to approach zero. As we approach the year 2020 we get to 5 nanometers. That is 12 atoms across. It means we will be able to turn anything into a computer. My desk. My jacket. My body, into a computer. This radically changes how we need to look at the world. Then the problem isn’t asking the questions of what we can do, but can we get it done? It's a holdover to the industrial revolution. Now we know we can turn anything into a computer and can make it intelligent. What do we want to do? That's another reason I came to ASU. How can we use all of this intelligence? All of this connectivity? How can we use it to make them healthier and happy and more sustainable? Once we do that then it's just engineering. We can go and build it. Really, imagination is the number one most underutilized tool. Everybody has imagination, but we don't have a culture that supports it, that values it as a business tool, as an educational device. In five years, if you can imagine it you can build it. But you have to imagine it.

Q: I see your point about imagination, but history has shown that government and bureaucracy are often blocking innovation. How do you get past those potential roadblocks?

A: If we set the bar high enough and we're using it to solve problems. Technology is just a tool. It doesn't get to decide what it does; we do. A tool isn't really interesting until you can talk about what a tool can do. So I think if we start thinking about the science and technology and the work we're doing ... this will lower the bar (of government oversight/regulation). 

Q: Assuming we get past the limits of imagination and oversight. What can we do expect from this technology breakthrough?

A: I think there are a couple of things we can do. It's absolutely ridiculous that we have all this technology around us and it doesn't know us. I have to introduce my smartphone to myself every time I pick it up. I spend more time with my phone than my family. It's kind of ridiculous that it doesn't embrace our humanity. We need to understand we imbue our technology ... with our hopes and dreams. These devices should understand us. They should be our proxies. Now there are certainly security concerns and data concerns ... but we will see a time when our technology embraces our humanity and allows us to be more human.  

I'm a nerd. I'm a completely self-professed geek. For the past 10 years I've been working on the 21st Digital Robot ... it's one of the reasons I came to ASU, that we see robots not as something scary but as something social. Robots that should be easy to build and program, as easy as smartphones. Everybody should be able to build their own robots, having them imbued with imagination and personality and quirks. So we're going to be going into underserved schools ... and working with students to build robots.

Q: These projects, and your past work has had a recurring theme of using information or imagination to defeat the fears of technology overtaking us. Why is this such an important issue to you?

A: Fear is a very dangerous thing. When your brain is frightened you can do one of three responses: fight, flight or freeze. Nobody ever had a genius idea out of fear. A colleague of mine once said, "Brian, fear makes you stupid." What I spend a lot of time doing is I don't shy away from (fearful outcomes). But I also think we have to be responsible for our dystopias. The future doesn't just happen; it's built by people every day. The future is intensely local, as well. I work with people and tell them they have to be responsible for their dystopias. Tell me about your fears, then what you are going to do about it. That to me is very insidious and worrisome, when people do have those fears about technology and robots taking over the world. People are worried about the safety of their families and neighbors, and that's a good thing. But I try to empower people and tell them they can build their own futures.

Q: How do people respond to this?

A: Usually they're very angry with me, in the beginning. I spend most of my life on the road. Again, the future is local, so I go where the future is being made. I take this very serious. You have to go talk to these people. And often people stand up and get angry with me. I try to make them calm down. I tell them, you're worried technology is stealing your daughters from you and that's a good thing. You love your daughters ... we need more of that. Technology doesn't get to decide. We build (technology). A gentleman I was saying this to was getting bothered with me. I said, "Do you watch TV when you eat dinner?" He said it was turned off. I said, "Good, you get to decide. The TV does not."

Q: What are your fears?

A: I have just one. It ties back to that humanity piece. I do believe we do imbue our technology with humanity. We have different religions and beliefs. That's fine. The future involves everybody. The future involves people you don't agree with and people you don't like. That's OK. We thrive on our diversity. So I have no problem with conflict. It's our job to figure out how to make them right. If we embrace that our technology and business and organizations can become better angels they don't have our hubris, they don't have our flaws. We can actually design them to be our better angels. To take care of the people we love and make our organization better. The flip side of that is evil. I wrote a book called "Humanity and the Machine." I did some research ... evil isn't some demonic force ... evil is not understanding the consequences of what's going on. What that means is if we're creating these machines and not putting our humanity in it ... then we're creating machines of evil. That is a thing that worries me.

Q: Here's what I find interesting about the American Dream: Its DNA is built on nostalgia. The dream isn't to go where we haven't been, but to achieve what's already been done — success, happiness, wealth, etc. So when we talk about the future of the American Dream, we really are discussing the present or near past. So why look into the future for this dream?

A: That's a great question. That's specifically why I framed my project, my class, my book, “The Future of the American Dream.” It becomes a conversation about the future. Whose America and whose dream? It's not only limited to the population of America. It turns out there's more talk about the American Dream outside of America. I found that there's a hole in the collective imagination of America. This is the great imagining. Imagining the future of America and the world. It's a micro and macro question at the same time. Why I like the question is that it allows us to talk about the bad ... a whole host of things we need to work on. But we first need to talk about our dreams. If you haven't figured it out yet, I'm an optimist. I'm a declared optimist. I think we should get together and create a future that doesn't suck. So much of this is about a dialogue. I will never get it right. But the only way I get it less wrong is if I go out and talk to people.

Top photo: Brian David Johnson is shown sharing his smartphone with students. Photo by Sara Lavoie/Mater Christi School, Burlington, Vermont

 
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Erdos-Bacon-what? You may never have heard of this list, but ASU prof is on it.
EBS numbers show people's interactions across spectrum of science and culture.
Six degrees of ... well, pretty much anything: ASU prof's EBS score on the rise.
January 26, 2016

ASU's Lawrence Krauss on short list of those whose reach crosses culture lines of science, movies and music — and his score is rising

Yeah, there’s the Nobel Prize. That’s great. Eight hundred and seventy people have one. Olympic gold medals? Thousands out there. Oscars? Who cares?

To be amongst the truly exclusive, to be in a group numbering only in the double digits, you need to have an Erdos-Bacon-Sabbath number. One faculty member at Arizona State University stands proudly with this group.

But first — Erdos-Bacon-whatsit? It’s a score made up of connections with three people/entities.

Paul Erdos was a legendary mathematician who wrote more papers than anyone else in history — more than 1,500. Described in his New York Times obituary as “a mathematical pilgrim with no home and no job,” Erdos was famous for appearing on colleagues’ doorsteps, staying for a few days working on a paper, and then disappearing.

Most people have heard of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. The prolific actor once claimed in an interview he’d either been in a movie with everyone in Hollywood or someone who had worked with them. The comment morphed into a parlor game for movie buffs connecting actors to Bacon.

Legendary heavy metal band Black Sabbath is famous for having more members (35 touring and session players) than albums (19).

To have an Erdos-Bacon-Sabbath number, you must have: co-written a scientific paper with someone who eventually connects to Erdos; appeared in a film with someone who eventually connects to Kevin Bacon; and performed musically with someone who eventually connects to Black Sabbath. A perfect EBS number would be three.

No one has a three.

Stephen Hawking, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein and Carl Sagan all have EBS numbers. Somewhat surprising for Edison and Einstein, but not the other two. However, “Friends” actress Lisa Kudrow, Runaways bassist Jackie Fox and Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman also have EBS numbers.

And so does ASU’s Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist and cosmologist, Foundation Professor of the School of Earth and Space ExplorationThe School of Earth and Space Exploration is a unit of ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences., director of ASU’s Origins Project, and the only physicist to have received awards from all three major American physics societies.

“It made my day,” Krauss said. “I’m very happy about it. … Any time I can be sandwiched between Lisa Kudrow and Stephen Hawking — not literally, but metaphorically — it’s a good thing.”

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ASU professor Lawrence Krauss what he enjoys about the Erdos-Bacon-Sabbath numbers — beyond the amusement factor — is that they show when someone has had interactions across many fields. Photos by Jena Sprau and (top) Tessa Menken/ASU

 

Krauss’ resume is 33 pages long. Where does having an EBS number stand in his long list of accomplishments?

“I’d put it way up there,” he said. “I think it’s nice because, besides the amusement factor — which is a big part of it — to be a little more serious, their idea is it represents people who have interactions across the spectrum of culture and science. That’s what I love to do. So it’s nice in that sense that I’m included. That and the fact I know my EBS is lower than they said, which is good.”

Krauss has an EBS of Erdos 4 + Bacon 3 + Sabbath 6.  For his Erdos number of 4, he co-wrote a paper — “Spin-dependent scattering of weakly interacting massive particles in heavy nuclei” — with Francesco Iachello, who co-wrote a paper with Raphael Levine, who co-wrote a paper with Peter Salamon, who co-wrote a paper with Paul Erdos.

For his Bacon number of 3, he appeared in a 2013 documentary called “The Unbelievers” about the importance of science and reason in the modern world. Penn Jillette — half of the magic duo Penn and Teller — also appeared in “The Unbelievers.” Jillette starred in “Penn and Teller Get Killed,” along with Nancy Giles. Giles appeared in “Loverboy,” a 2005 drama starring and directed by Kevin Bacon.

For his Sabbath number of 6, Krauss narrated Holst’s “The Planets” performed by the Cleveland Orchestra. The orchestra at one point played "Gamelan D’Drum," a 35-minute composition for world percussion written by Police drummer Stewart Copeland. Naturally, Copeland played with bandmate Sting in the Police. Sting sang backup vocals on a song on Phil Collins’ album “Take Me Home.” In 2002 (are you exhausted yet?), Collins performed “Paranoid” with Black Sabbath at Buckingham Palace during Queen Elizabeth II's Golden Jubilee.

But wait! Krauss is on the rise!

One of Krauss’ collaborators directly co-wrote a paper with Erdos. That brings Krauss’s Erdos number down to 2. He has an upcoming project with someone who has played with Black Sabbath or a member of Black Sabbath, which will bring his Sabbath number to 2. When that happens, Krauss, with a 7, will pass the inner circle of EBS number holders — those with an eight.

Only three people have an eight: Stephen Hawking; author, inventor, and futurist Ray Kurzweil; and Daniel Levitin, a professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at McGill University.

“I think I can be up there with those guys,” Krauss said. “That’ll be interesting. … If it really is true, I’d be very happy to have the lowest EBS number, along with Stephen and Daniel Levitin. Stephen’s a good friend.”

“It made my day. … Any time I can be sandwiched between Lisa Kudrow and Stephen Hawking — not literally, but metaphorically — it’s a good thing.”
— ASU theoretical physicist and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss

The Erdos-Bacon-Sabbath Project was created by Sean O’Connor, a self-described middle-aged science geek living in San Diego, and Ross Churchley, a graduate student at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, whose research field is graph theory, the mathematical study of networks.

O’Connor writes an eclectic science-related blog called Timeblimp. He published an article about EBS on his blog sometime in the mid-2000s.

“It's actually been so long ago that I don't remember precisely what made us think of the idea,” O’Connor said. “On my Timeblimp blog I try to write interesting educational articles, topics that I think are really cool but you don't hear about much. I think I was researching an article about Erdos-Bacon numbers (which existed before Ross and I started this), and I had been aware of Six Degrees of Sabbath for a while before that.

“At the same time (or perhaps earlier — we don't bother with accurate historical records), Ross came up with the idea, and somehow we found each other. He was an undergrad in college at the time, I didn't have kids yet, so we had plenty of time to do research and track down potential links. I had maintained an initial list at timeblimp.com, but Ross really pushed the idea to what is today, and essentially deserves all the credit for the attention that the EBS idea has gotten.”

Churchley started the EBS Project website in 2012, after English musician and physicist Brian Cox tweeted about Churchley’s discovery of his EBS number. He received so many suggestions for new EBS numbers that he decided to put them all in one place.

“I enjoy looking for EBS numbers as a game, like a sort of Internet scavenger hunt,” Churchley said. “Finding one can be a fun way to pass the time in between thesis revisions. However, there are also interesting research questions one can ask about the mathematical structure of social networks, and I'd love to study the collaboration graphs in more depth someday.”

Verifying an EBS number requires a lot of tedious cross-checking of publications, and sometimes getting fooled by same-name-different-person in a co-author list, according to O’Connor.

“Once you piece a solid chain of links together, though, it's a great feeling — a feeling of having accomplished something obscure that doesn't really matter for anything in the real world, but it's damn fun,” he said.

The website lists everyone whose EBS number is known to Churchley and O’Connor, but there are many people whose EBS numbers haven't been discovered yet. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and recent Fields medalist Manjul Bhargava should have EBS numbers, Churchley said.

“We haven't yet found the trail of collaborations to prove it,” he said.

“Kool Moe Dee (the old-school rapper) and Dolph Lundgren (the Russian from ‘Rocky IV’) both are potential members, if I ever can find the time to prove them,” O’Connor said. “The bar for achieving all three numbers is so high, you wind up with a list of such amazing people.  We've talked about how cool it would be to get them all together at a dinner party — I'd feel quite inadequate to be in the company of all these geniuses, but how much fun would that be?”

Krauss agreed. “That’s great,” he said. “They should have a party for all of us.”

A collage of three different portraits of people.
The EBS Project verifies the connections of individuals to legendary mathematician Paul Erdos, actor Kevin Bacon and heavy metal band Black Sabbath. Image courtesy EBS Project

 

Churchley has heard from many people on the list, most trying to find shorter collaboration paths to help improve their own numbers. He has also heard from people who discovered their own EBS number and were added to the list after contacting him.

Finding new EBS numbers is a collaborative effort between Churchley and O’Connor and visitors to the project.

“I've discovered a few Erdos numbers to help those efforts, as well as finding citations for the collaboration links,” Churchleysaid.

Churchley has poured a ton of work into the site, O’Connor said.

“I have a couple to my credit, but Ross (and a few other early devotees) had the patience to sift through publication databases to find rock-solid links for candidates,” he said. “I'm better at the snarky jokes and sarcasm than I am at the painstaking research.”

Krauss was tickled by the comprehensive list.

“Natalie Portman I wasn’t as surprised about because I knew Natalie Portman was a scientist in an earlier life,” he said. “Lisa Kudrow I was surprised about. … That’s what I liked about it. It’s an eclectic list. Any time you can be part of an eclectic list, it means in some sense you’ve impacted on culture.”

O’Connor said more people have read the list than have read his professional publications.

“It’s such a completely-pointless-but-ridiculously-fun endeavor, that I think I'm more proud of it than anything I've actually accomplished in real science,” he said.

Find the full list at erdosbaconsabbath.com. To suggest new EBS members or improve connections for existing members, bug O’Connor at timeblimp.com or on Twitter at @timeblimp or @ErdBacSab (the official Twitter for the EBS Project).

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now

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