Normally, in writing about the participants in Sofia Science Festival, each story is about a presenter who is coming. This is a story about one who is not. But he will be there in spirit, so to speak – via a robot.
Israeli futurist Roey Tzezana will be speaking at the 2018 Sofia Science Festival on the topic “Science will save the world”, and he has much to say. He has been saying it in various books, and delivered lectures in courses, yes, via robot.
Just recently, Roey delivered lectures in two places in Israel, at opposite ends of the country, just a short time apart. At no point did he leave his room in the United States.
“It all started a few years ago when I left Israel to live and do research in the United States,” he tells The Sofia Globe in a video-link interview (not involving robots, though).
“I didn’t want to leave Israel completely, seeing as I have lots of business, and lectures and courses to give, in Israel, so I thought it would be interesting if I could use a robotic body in Israel, that I could control from the US.
“I’m a futurist, I study the future, I’ve been studying the future of robotics, so it makes perfect sense for me to try these crazy new things – that’s what futurists are supposed to do, we push the envelope, we get out of the box,” Roey says.
Having purchased and got his robot into Israel – not without some keen questions from customs officers, who were a bit puzzled about what duties may be due on an arriving robot – Roey set about approaching organisers of lectures and events to interest them in a presentation remotely via robot. He was met with skepticism, even laughter, and concern about the risk of something going wrong.
At the first event, it did. Half-way through, the robot fell silent. The sound technicians had neglected to ensure the batteries were charged. The problem fixed, proceedings went on, to an audience of 400.
Now that number has multiplied considerably: “We’ve given about 200 lectures in my robotic body”. There have been university courses, lectures about foresight, future studies, the future of education, and other issues.
“We brought a Pakistani futurist, we let her connect to the robot and we gave an entire workshop on geopolitical issues from the Pakistani point of view, to the students.” (There was also, though not mentioned in the interview, the rather bizarre “Zionist robot” episode in March 2016 at Brown University, to which Roey responded, against allegations of the robot being a spy, or a drone, or sent to intimidate, or something).
But what about the, so to speak, environmental footprint of the robot? Roey may be staying in his room and away from the airways, but the robot still travels.
“It could have a much lesser impact, because if I had to give these lectures in Israel and all over the world, by actually travelling to Israel, I would have taken two or three flights every week, and just think about what it would have cost to the environment.
“Now, you may say, but okay, you sent your robot, it doesn’t really matter, it’s the same thing. But this is just the way things are in the present. In the future – in the not so far future – we are going to have robots like this all over the place, so I won’t have to send my robot anymore, instead, I would just be able to connect to robots that are already present, in my view definitely helping the environment by moving over to such a tele presence.”
Roey is challenged on the question that, in a world of severe inequalities, those inequalities could be aggravated by the advantages that some countries will have because of superior resources to advance technologically, which others do not have.
He agrees that inequality in the world is a very great concern for him, but points to a number of indicators of improvements in the past two decades or so – reductions in poverty, reductions in malnourishment, increased longevity, hugely increased literacy, affordable access to information via mobile devices.
“In 10 years from now, almost everyone is going to have access to the internet, as opposed to the 53 to 54 per cent who do today. These technologies improve life,” he says, adding that in about 10 to 20 years, even poor people will have access to a level of services – medical, legal, among others – that can only be dreamt about today.
He also sees the possibility for technology enabling a deliberative democracy. He outlines the failings of the belief in the genuineness of representative democracy, considering the research in the US – the findings of which may be extrapolated to other countries, he says – that shows that in the current “representative democracy”, it is really the wealthy and the big companies that get what they want while the others not at this level barely ever get what they want.
“So there are starting to be some initiatives to essentially ‘wiki-ise’ the government, to create deliberative governmental schemes where everybody is talking together, everyone’s voting, everyone’s involved.
“And these schemes are also vulnerable too, to control by the rich and the wealthy, you can never have a system free of those influences, but they are much, much less vulnerable than the representative democracy that we have today,” Roey says.
“I would say that technology is definitely bringing us closer to a future in which real representation of the people is going to be something that is actually happening, and we are going to look back, at the representative democracy that we have today,” he says.
“We are going to wonder, our kids are going to wonder, how ever could we live in those times, when it was so clear that the government was never doing what was needed to be done, that we couldn’t really trust our representatives, and the internet, and other technologies like the blockchain technology, will finally enable us to reach an age of actual representation for everyone.”
Responding to a question, he acknowledges that his views evolve, that his thinking changes. He cities the example of the evolution of his outlook as he prepared his book Rulers of the Future.
“I started this book with the very clear thought that the sharing economy is going to change the world, that it is changing the world right now…I started out with such an optimistic view, and as I went along and did the research, I realised that the sharing economy is still managed by the large companies that manage and maintain the platforms.”
He also explains the concept he invented, the “cloud nation”, outlined in the book, a new kind of organisation that could provide governmental services and representation to millions of people, transcending the model of the territorial nation.
Who should be pushing forward this concept? he says. “Those who did not have a territory for the past 2000 years and a result, had no unity and power. Those are the Jewish people.
“In the past, you could not have power if you didn’t have territory. Because power requires unity, and without a shared territory, you could not unite people. But if you have a Jewish cloud nation, suddenly you can have unity, of people working together, discussing together, voting together, sharing their wealth together, with cloud national insurance.”
The idea, he emphasises, is not that “we’re trying to separate the Jews from everyone else”.
“We’re trying to do Tikkun Olam (a concept in Judaism meaning ‘repair of the world’)…we’re trying to show others how to do these kinds of things, to repair the world, how to create cloud nations.”
If it works, anyone and everyone can come and take the code and use it for themselves.
“If the Palestinians want to create a cloud nation that is better than what their corrupt government is currently offering them, be our guests. If Americans want to unite together to have a better medical insurance than the junk they have today, then go ahead, use the system.”
To a question that the establishment tends to want to destroy that which it cannot regulate, Roey say that he is a very big believer in the determinism of technology.
“The shape of technology influences the shape of society. Once a technology reaches the necessary stage, it will bring social change about,” he says, citing the example of the Industrial Revolution.
He is also careful to point out that he is not some sort of anarchist, urging the immediate fall of any form of centralisation, because of the dangerous gap that could leave, for example, to terrorist groups who would seek to surge into the vacuum.
“All I’m saying is that as we are moving forward, even the largest centralised nations in the world, will not be able to stop the process of decentralisation.
“Because this is a process in which the public is getting the power, and as long as they can use their computers, providing power to the blockchain, they will also have representation. This is my belief and my hope. I am aware that many things can happen to disrupt the process of decentralisation, but I believe that this is where we are heading.”
Dr Roey Tzezana’s presentation at the 2018 Sofia Science Festival will be on May 11 at 7.30pm. For further details and information on getting tickets, please click here.
- A graduate of the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology with a Ph.D in nanotechnology, Dr Roey Tzezana is a researcher in the Blavatnik Center for Interdisciplinary Cyber Research at Tel Aviv University; a senior analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy; and a co-founder of TeleBuddy, which provides robotic telepresence services for conferences, meetings and events worldwide.