Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Dark Side of the Future for the Individual

As I've noted elsewhere, when imagining the future most people, certainly many futurists, seem to fall into one of two camps: that the future will be a utopian heaven, or a dystopian hell. In fact, the idea behind the Singularity's "unknowability" seems to be to leave it up to the reader to decide which one of these two outcomes their individual character prefers. This feeling of either elation (perhaps more common among the young and/or well off?), or dread (more common among the old and/or disadvantaged?) is so widespread it could almost be termed "universal", though I use this term in a relative rather than an absolute sense.

However, in case you the reader subscribe to one of these two stark and opposing visions of the future, ask yourself this: is the present utopia or dystopia? Was the past utopia or dystopia? Whatever your heart says, the true answer is that it depends on your point of view, your station in life, your age, your experiences, and many other factors. However, it is not utopia in the sense that everyone is living on a heaven on Earth currently; nor is it realistic to say that all of us live in the bowels of misery every waking moment either. As M. Scott Peck, author of the wildly successful "Road Less Traveled", and a Freudian if there ever was one says at the very beginning of that book, "Life is difficult". It is difficult for every creature on the planet, and every human. The main ways it is difficult for humans at least are outlined in brilliant ways by Freud and summarized in the "Civilization and Its Discontents" lecture elsewhere in this blog.

And life in the past was every bit as difficult as life now, difficult in some of the same ways and difficult in other ways, the noting of which and reasonably projecting into the future can give us insight into some of the likely difficulties liable to persist into even the far future.

First of all, let's look at the trends in the future.

As I've noted, it will be noisy - bombardment from advertising messages, in fact messages of all kinds, each of us inundated with both wanted and unwanted "communications", constantly. This will make the nesting trend as strong if not stronger than today. Now, the nesting trend to some degree represents a withdrawal from the world. Of course, with the Internet , television, etc., we can still be connected to the world even as we withdraw from it. But the nature of the interaction is not face-to-face; it's very different. In some ways, perhaps better - certainly in terms of volume (if not always quality) of informational content, these media are a massive improvement over the mouth-to-mouth or newsprint-based information technologies of yore.

However, the downside is arguably this: we don't feel as much need to interact with real people. Not saying it's disappeared, but to be clear one of the things that made people 'friendlier' in the past, especially in rural settings, was the hunger for the latest news that a stranger might have. This trend will continue into the future, and some of the techs I've described will be so compellingly vivid and realistic that it is not inconceivable that many people with access to these techs could withdraw from polite society except for compelling needs like employment. This risk is so real that I believe that over time it will become a thrust of the programming of this tech to in fact help us from becoming too isolated from the real world, from other real people, to build and maintain that precious web of relationships that form the lifeblood of an individual's true success in life.

Another trend is toward "knowledge work", which is in many ways positive. It exercises our brain, and is the lifeblood of the modern technical economy, or at least an essential component. However, what does knowledge work typically consist of? Sitting in front of a computer, often all day long, another enemy of face-to-face interaction, the main communication technique that the human species over endless millennia has evolved to be best at.

Also, the non-manual nature of knowledge work also in some ways is alienated from our true, human nature. This can lead to boredom and depression, and with the overall trend toward more free time, has certain implications.

Substance abuse, both legal and illegal, will continue to be a problem in the future, as strong if not stronger than today. And no amount of money spent on the outright banning of every substance (the drug war) will change this. I actually have a most unusual solution to the drug problem, which I will share in a future blog entry.

Part and parcel with boredom and the day-to-day-staring-at-a-computer-screen is loneliness. The future will be as lonely as today, if not lonelier. Chat rooms and message boards can ameliorate this up to a point, but as we know do not completely satisfy our deepest human desires. This likelihood in fact is a strong reason to have faith in the predictions of future droids taking on a hyper-realistically human form factor; not just because this minimizes the communication barrier between humans and droids and maximizes the droidian compatibility with the infrastructure built for humans, but also because this form factor will allow droids to fill our most intimate needs (at least in superficial ways) without the risk of hurting ourselves or hurting others, if you catch my drift.

However, this scenario, though it will come to pass as surely as I am writing this now, is also not without risk, and that risk is non-trivial: over time, when their simulated psychological complexity as well as their convincing physicality reaches a certain level of maturity, for many real relationships (at least of an intimate nature), except for needs of reproduction (I do NOT predict reproductively viable droids, though they will be anatomically correct, those are two entirely different things, don't get confused), will become optional or even deemed unnecessary by many humans. I suggest this risk is greater for men than for women, not because men are shallower than women, but because the nature of their sexuality is certainly more physically-based and thus physically satisfiable as a general rule, than that of women.

This may seem far-fetched; and for a droid of constant appearance, a temporary palliative. However, not sure I've mentioned these yet, let me introduce these briefly now, a class of advanced droid that is as far ahead of the hyper-realistically human droid with the superpowers I've described as these are ahead of the modern desktop computer. I'm referring to what I term the "multi-facade" droid. Essentially, these would also be hyper-realistically human, but via a set of thousands of facial actuators, skin pigment adjusters, height adjusters (within a certain range), hair texture and color modifiers, and last but not least software so advanced it can take on not just one human personality but potentially thousands, these multi-facades, using whatever information available, whether a single, grainy old picture, a movie, a face-to-face meeting, etc, would be able to take on the appearance and personality of whatever individual was desired to a degree of fidelity that to even a longtime friend of whatever person was being modeled would be absolutely indistinguishable from the real thing.

Now, it may sound like I'm about to get into "6th day" type cloning nightmare scenarios but no, these will still be manufactured products subject to even greater ethical and liability concerns than manufactured products today. So you won't be able to off an office rival and have your droid take over its identity, your droid won't do that, and to the degree it is aware, will use every ounce of its hyper-intelligence to prevent you from doing something of this kind.

Though that is where most science fiction writers would go immediately, that's not the danger. The danger is within us, on the human side of the partnership. These droids may be so satisfying on physical, psychological, and intellectual levels, that withdrawal from real relationships, especially of an intimate nature, by that human is the gravest risk. First men will be most susceptible, but in time women as well. This risk is so great that I believe it defines another fine line in the programming of these devices: to satisfy the needs and thereby assuage the loneliness, without the human actually falling in love - a complete surrender to these amazing illusions of humanity. They will do this through hyper-observancy of the character of its human or humans with which it interacts, using great subtlety to toe that fine line between mere satisfaction and true love, by saying and doing the right thing almost all of the time.

They may take on a variety of bizarre roles to achieve this, such as playing matchmaker. This topic will have its own blog entry, so I won't go further here. However, despite their best efforts and most super-subtle programming to keep you "in the game", their success will at most be limited, and as the use of computers as productivity and entertainment tools today draws us away from face-to-face interaction, these future technologies will strengthen that trend, and if we're not careful the entire nature of human-to-human relationships may change in a way that we have not begun to imagine.

There are many dimensions to the dark side of the future - this entry describes that at the level of individual, in developed countries, for the most part, where these trends are in place and these techs are widely available. I will save the larger scale of cultural, national, and religious rivalries for another time.

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