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Envisioning Terrible Futures in Order to Avoid Them.
Welcome to Polymathic Being, a place to explore counterintuitive insights across multiple domains. These essays take common topics and explore them from different perspectives and disciplines and, in doing so, come up with unique insights and solutions. Fundamentally, a Polymath is a type of thinker who spans diverse specialties and weaves together insights that the domain experts often don’t see.
Today's topic is an introduction to a very important capability called Threatcasting. We’ll get into the goals, the model that runs it, and an example I just participated in this past week. Fundamentally the goal of Threatcasting is to imagine terrible futures so that we can do things today to prevent them from happening.
It’s a bit of the running joke in the Threatcasting workshops of how big the impact can be when advanced technologies run amok ten to fifteen years from now. This is the goal; imagine the paths that can lead to billions dying.
It’s a little harder to have “Trillions Die” but this last week we made a strong attempt to achieve that with the sub-team I was on. It’s a serious joke that underpins the impact of what we are taking into consideration and how important we feel this work is to protect people from the misuse of otherwise empowering technology.
Two words have emerged to describe the underpinnings of the risks we uncover that cause cascading consequences of tech across the disciplines of technology, sociology, psychology, philosophy, and more.
Hubris: This is the extreme confidence, largely supported by ignorance and a fundamental lack of humility, about what humans are or are not capable of. In our scenarios, the systems are just as often torn down by well-meaning people who are afraid of what the technology can do as it is by malicious actors using the technology to harm. Hubris is the foundation of both.
Fragility: What we call civilization, and its derivatives of civility and control, is a shockingly thin layer that holds us from fracturing into micro-tribalism and chaos. Several recent events highlight this such as the COVID pandemic and the ecosystems of social media in general and Twitter specifically. In the case of Twitter, I like to view that space as an unfiltered view into the soul of a broad cross-section of humanity. It’s amazing how vitriolic normally thoughtful people can be without the filters of civilization that social media often removes.
Fragility also refers to the technology itself and the designs, integrations, and security systems that open up dangerous uses, or manipulations.
With these two concepts in mind, let’s step back and introduce Threatcasting and how this powerful tool can help us understand these concepts and why they end up triggering so much chaos.
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Threatcasting is a conceptual framework used to help multidisciplinary groups envision future scenarios and plan against threats ten to fifteen years in the future. It emerged in 2007 as a variation on the Futurecasting process and is considered a subset of the larger applied futures models.
The Army Cyber Institute at West Point, in partnership with Arizona State University's Global Securities Initiative and the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, established a Threatcasting Lab to host and manage portfolios of projects aiming to better understand the risks we may face. The success of this process has fostered wide adoption across dozens of commercial companies as well as many US Government organizations. Fantastic examples can be found on the Army Cyber Institute website from previous events.
Fundamentally, Threatcasting and Futurecasting are not about predicting the future. They are about envisioning futures that’d you’d like to avoid (threat) or realize (future). This is a subtle but important distinction in that there is no single future or single threat, and they are not guaranteed. These analyses merely illuminate what could happen so steps can be taken to avoid threats or realize opportunities.
The process involves inputs from social science, technical research, cultural history, economics, trends, expert interviews, and more. These inputs inform the exploration of potential visions of the future. Teams then conduct forward casting to envision a future and then backcasting to identify flags and gates to measure progress as you work to identify ways to mitigate the threat and save those billions of innocent people. The main goal of Threatcasting is to look into the abyss and then figuring out how to keep it from happening.
It’s honestly an easy process to follow and the hardest part is to unlock the imagination and stretch the minds of people to get out of their own experience and explore what they can’t see. Another challenge is to push people out of their own moral foundations to view the threats and create scenarios where billions might die.
Threatcasting truly is a Polymathic tool as you work across multiple domains and disciplines and draw on the broadest diversity of thought possible to challenge biases and come to new and unique insights.
Design versus Futures Thinking
A separate challenge to actually kicking off Threatcasting and Futures, in general, is that many engineers and designers believe they have already looked at the larger problem. This is a challenge we’ve explored before in Investigating Personality Proclivities, Embrace the Divergents, and Functional Stupidity and How to Avoid It. Namely that a large part of our technical talent is discretely focused and our corporate environments place a lot of value on starting with a defined problem and then working into a solution.
Where this goes wrong is that, too often, the problem that is selected isn’t the right one and/or has the wrong definition to start with. This is why it is so essential to start with answering Why before you get into the What or How. If you dive into the solution, you also fall victim to trying to prove it can work, not proving whether it should work, or most importantly, proving that it doesn’t work.
Systems Thinking addresses this issue and is an integrated function of Futures Thinking in that you start with the humility to admit we probably don’t know as much about the problems as we’d like to think and coupling that with an insatiable curiosity to explore what else is out there.
As you can see in the difference between these two diagrams, Design Thinking focuses into the problem while Futures Thinking steps back from the problem to establish context. The proper order for how Futures work with Design looks like this.
As you can see, when the full system is understood, the selection of a problem is done with a holistic context and fosters better methods to ascertain benefit. Another way to see the difference in thought between Design and Figures thinking is best captured in the behaviors of the two philosophies:
Marrying Futures with Design is what we call Applied Futures. There’s limited benefit in just imagining Futures; you have to figure out how to make it real or to take real steps to keep it from happening. This is how Threatcasting and Futures in general help us to avoid the Hubris and Fragility we talked about earlier. We avoid Hubris by ensuring full context. Likewise, Fragility is a function of suboptimal and myopic designs that miss the full context. Applied Futures is a critical tool allowing us to step back with humility and curiosity and reframe the problem space to make sure we fully understand it.
NATO Threatcasting of 6G
Around 60 highly intelligent thinkers, practitioners, and subject matter experts descended on Virginia Beach this past week and took on a challenge from NATO to look forward to 2035 and Threatcast 6G technologies. The goal was to inform the alliance as to what things we should look to embrace, control, and avoid when it comes down to this next generation of highly interconnected and high-bandwidth communications.
We heard from a series of leading experts in the field and their backgrounds ranged from economics, technology, policy, acquisition, production, and research. Key themes emerged to describe 6G such as:
Ubiquitous - Connections, Surveillance, Internet of Things (IoT), Data, AI, etc.
Edge devices create control challenges of bandwidth and compute power
The need to ensure trust - A wicked problem across multiple layers
Data privacy concerns - Volume of information, precision location, etc.
True presence in a metaverse resulting in loss of real-world connection
Social degradation - Mico-tribalism, faster and narrower feedback loops, etc.
Security - How current methods are fragile and reactive.
After we synthesized key elements from the experts, then we unleashed the creative genius of the attendees. Over the course of the workshop, approximately 15 teams created 4 Threatcasts each to sketch out the future we wanted to avoid.
We killed billions in novel and very realistic ways. My team managed to create a societal autoimmune response in Finland which caused them to destroy themselves. Our Finnish attendee was so proud for her country to be a focus of such mass destruction that we immediately became friends.
The teams captured a ton of perspectives and information for each Threatcast and documented the findings in a structured workbook. This creates an incredible volume of insights, concepts, risks, and opportunities that can be further leveraged for even more new and emergent findings.
I’d love to spoil more of the event, but we’ll have to wait as we continue to distill the findings and develop them into a Threatcasting report, like the ones below, that allows us to inform everyone about futures that could happen and how to avoid them.
The main thing to know, and value about Threatcasting specifically and Applied Futures in general is that this allows us to honestly talk about true risks without the hyperbole of hubris and fragility. It is a perfect complement to the traditional design processes and helps ensure we are solving the right problems in context. Integrate properly with classic Design Thinking helps us shape the world toward better paths that take into account multiple dimensions, perspectives, and disciplines. This is how we conquer hubris and fragility and save millions if not billions of human lives.
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