As technology advances exponentially, we often hear of the successes they prohibit, but rarely the downfalls they provoke. Studying how technology influences mind, behaviour, culture and business, I find inquisitive discussions around the unfavourable consequences of our feats overlooked and painfully limited.
Without putting on the tinfoil hat or running around like it's the end of the world, I believe thorough consideration into our unchecked progression is warranted. Without checks and balances, let alone mere scepticism, we can potentially fall trap to technology, offsetting its initial value and instead, producing long term, net negative experiences. Virtual reality (VR), artificial intelligence (AI) and interconnectedness are three topics spanning our itinerary that I do not believe are assigned a proportionate amount of suspicion. Discussion into these fields is not an attempt to curb progression, but rather to raise public awareness, pause, reframe outlooks and to ultimately refocus energy appropriate to our long-term benefit.
According to Digi-Capital, VR and AR (augmented reality) could reach $120 billion in revenue by 2020, but to call VR premature is an understatement. Like many of our drooled-over technologies today, VR is neither new, nor close to ready for seamless and affordable mass adoption. Nevertheless, people’s interests are currently piqued, which gives VR development the green light. This should simultaneously invite extensive questioning into this newly hyped medium.
With such encapsulating experiences, extended escapism becomes a growing concern. What happens when fictitious, virtual worlds become more enchanting than our real, physical ones? There have already been nightmarish scenarios where individuals have foregone real responsibilities (such as parents starving their child to death) to prioritise fictitious ones in the virtual world. When our virtual worlds become more favourable than our real ones, what reasons will there be to return? Do we possess the self-control to responsibly balance the blooming hypnosis of utopian virtual scenarios with the imperfect real? We have constructed laws around other vices including drugs, alcohol and sex, but will VR require the same boundaries and more so, who will write the law?
More concerning are the physical and psychological effects of such experiences, notwithstanding the uncanny realism of VR pornography. While the research on the effects of VR is slim, one study from the UCLA Keck Center of Neurophysics uncovered glaringly negative side effects including "abnormal patterns of activity in rat brains, including 60 per cent of neurons that simply shut down in virtual reality environments." While VR has profound implications for fields ranging from education to exposure therapy, when envisioning VR today, we often jump to Google’s Cardboard. These minute-long, often pre-rendered VR experiences are rudimentary in comparison to the potential content and effects VR will have on us. That said, if we are to continue to drool over its potential, we must also be wary of its long-term physical and psychological ramifications.
Robot & AI ethics
AI is currently (and unfortunately) embodied by the innocent poster-children Siri, Alexa and Google Home, implicitly sugar-coating our understandings of such programs. While it's not necessarily wrong to call these virtual assistants AI, these examples are in fact computers with artificial narrow intelligence (ANI), whose competencies are laughable compared to the potential of general (AGI) and super-intelligence (ASI).
While some AI spokesmen, including Elon Musk believe, "we are summoning the devil" with AI, for the sake of a more mature and less conclusive discussion, let's presume the robots don't actually "take over." In this given scenario though, the development of rights and ethics for machines are necessary to continue constructively.
In a potential world where humans live peacefully alongside intelligent machines, philosophical predicaments run abundant. If robots are to replace and/or supplement humans in various human-like roles, rules or confines must be applied. We wouldn't abuse a human chef, driver, mechanic, doctor or butler, but if (or when) a robot introduces itself into such a capacity, what protections, if any, will they receive? As if our cultures haven't had enough problems developing our own set of widely agreed upon, up-to-date rights, a new set must be underway for robots, which will be living amongst us in various forms.
Some basic questions entail, what even constitutes a robot worth protecting? Should robots be programmed with subjectivity or opinions, is it right to take the "life" of a robot and should robots be conscious of their own immortality? Should robots have emotions, and should robots be aware of their own hierarchical positioning (ie. enslaved)? More topically, with autonomous vehicles, the Trolley Problem is resurrected. In the face of a potential collision, does an intelligent car prioritise the lives of its passengers or the lives of others on the road? In this case and the previous, who is even responsible for making such complex decisions? Is it the programmers and executives of the machines, or rather us as societies and democracies? Despite the goals of AI solving radical tasks untouchable by man, as these programs are developed for an optimistically peaceful future, the creation of agreed upon ethics must be simultaneously be underway if we are to genuinely consider our future with them.
With the proliferation of physical digital devices and online personal accounts, connective tissues can become potential entanglements. Currently, our dating profiles are controlled by the same email sign-ins as our banking accounts, and our fridges are connected to the same internet as our home security systems. A single account compromise can push the domino leading to an avalanche of others. Our growing digital interconnectedness is a concern not just for our online personal identities, but also for the ties between our connected devices (ie. the IoT). This interconnectedness leads to an array of untapped issues, which surges in gravity over time.
With a mindset of online oversharing, our pure online anonymity increases in value. There is an irony in sharing our every move and meal, while revolting to maintain other digital rights. As many protest against the NSA’s or FCC's ability to tap into communications and privacies, here we are broadcasting such material for mere self-entertainment. The tie from one seemingly trivial datum to our vast pool of invaluable personal information is undeniably frightening.
As Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of Internet Law at Harvard, points out, "We can design systems that are really anonymous or that are utterly identifiable down to the person and it's time for us to think about what contexts we'd want to support what."
Going forward, we must be conscious of our balance between anonymity, pseudo-anonymity and truly identifiable digital citizenship. As our digital footprints (or permanent trails of online media and data) form behind us, we must be increasingly cautious of what's left in our wake. Hacks and breaches are becoming commonplace and according to cybersecurity experts, the years ahead will be grim considering our current vulnerabilities. We are investing a questionable amount of trust and faith online as we're storing photos and memories as well as hyper-personal banking and health information. Ironically, to secure this information, we’ve been introduced to biometric passwords such as fingerprint and facial scans, which is becoming valuable information in itself. Even though interconnectedness has granted us the promises of priceless convenience, in doing so, we should be continually alarmed of our security, privacy, and others’ abilities to tie information back to ourselves whether we like it or not.
It's undeniable that technology has its invaluable positive effects on many of us, and will continue to develop at its own pace. However, what's necessary is strategic reflection into the stages of its developments and heightened public discourse surrounding not just its ultimate effects but also needs in the first place.