Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Future Shock Applied: reality shock

The Matrix brought virtual reality into the general public's conscious.  There are a few augmented reality applications available for iPhone and Android phones.  These are two small pieces of a larger trend toward digital life.

Your great-great-grandparents would hardly recognize your life.  Miniature electronics.  Air conditioning.  Cellular phones.  Real-time news.  Your great-great-grandchildren's lives will be even more unimaginable to you.  The pace of technological change is increasing, and won't slow back down for hundreds or thousands of generations.

Digital reality is real reality.  It doesn't play by the same rules as physical reality.  In fact it will only play by the rules that we agree to impose on it.

My purpose here is not necessarily to prevent these changes, although I readily admit that prevention might be the right answer.  My purpose is to ask how we can do this safely, and what ethical and legal guidelines we should enact in advance.

Humanity is now beginning to transition from being primarily a physical life form to being primarily a digital life form.  When we get there we won't be the only digital life form, or even the most populous or most powerful one.  If we don't plan carefully, we won't be the digital life form in control of the digital reality that we share.

I've identified at least 7 "levels" of our transition into digital beings.  Each has interesting characteristics and markers, worthy of individual discussion.

Almost all humans today exist at level 0.  We only interact with digital reality through screens, keyboards, and mice.  There are thousands of people (a handful of the human population, really) experimenting with level 1.  Every day more and more people will follow them.  Every day the level 1 experience will become more useful.

In a matter of years more people will regularly exist at level 1 than level 0.  In a matter of decades no one will live a full life without spending significant time at level 1.  But before we reach that point some brave souls will begin experimenting with level 2.  The number of people who regularly experience level 2 will grow until it eclipses level 1.  Level 3 will eventually eclipse level 2, and so on.

The transitions will be driven by advances in technology.  Smaller faster processors and improved software systems.  Software development will have to mature as a science and a process--driven in large part by the challenges of reaching these new levels of digital interaction.

I don't believe that anyone will remember this article or reference my structure of levels.  No one will have to plan or organize this.  The push to innovate will be organic--individuals and companies will want to provide more life-like experiences in the digital world.  Money will flow to the winners of each round of the competition, through natural capitalism.

I have identified some markers of distinction between these levels.  Please understand that this is an artificial construction to allow us to think about these changes.  When this takes place the transitions will be nearly invisible and quite messy.  There will be no date when humanity transitions from one level to the next.  Every transition will be uneven and unpredictable.

Level 0: Unplugged
Almost all humans today exist at level 0.  We only interact with digital reality through screens, keyboards, and mice.  This will end soon.

Many of us work on-line, but we only experience this digital world through our screens and keyboards.  We spend digital money today.  Sometimes that money is directly equivalent to physical currency, and sometimes it is not.  In each of the following levels of digital life the forms of currency will proliferate.

Level 1: A/V Augmentation
There are several products and projects of note in the digital experience level 1, which encompasses all forms of external systems that provide digital information in audio and/or visual formats.  A GPS is an extremely rudimentary example.

Layar is an "augmented reality" application available for Android and iPhone phones.  You turn on Layar and hold up your phone.  The phone's camera and GPS are consulted to determine your position and the direction you are facing.  The camera display is shown on screen.  Then the Layar application augments reality with signposts and other information displayed on top of the picture.  It works live, in real time.

This research scientist is also using a camera, but he has paired it with a projector.  He uses the projector to display information from the internet on the physical world around you.  The camera can recognize your hands and fingers, which allows you to interact with the projected images.

The projector-based system is not available commercially, yet.  But it probably won't be long.  And these are just the tip of the iceberg.  The movie Minority Report depicted a future in which advertisements were projected at you from every angle--projecting images directly onto the eyeballs of people as they walked.  This, too, will happen.

Several companies already offer headset-based televisions.  These will improve and proliferate until they replace our iPods, iPhones, and other common electronic equipment.

The ultimate versions of level 1 augmented reality will come via computers embedded within our bodies.  The first of these computers will merely monitor our sensory inputs to allow our eyes to act as cameras, our ears as microphones, and our fingers to type on any surface.  These embedded computers will quickly gain the ability to intercept and then alter our sensory data.

At that point the Layar signposts will be presented as overlays to our visual field itself, injected into our stream of visual data along our optic nerves.  It may seem scary from this distance, but the medical uses of this technology will overcome our fears.  Digital vision correction--no more glasses, contacts, or surgeries (except in the most extreme cases).  Digital sound amplification--no more hearing aids.  Normalize the visual ticks of dyslexics.  Mute the voices in a Schizophrenic's head.

The embedded computer will also be used for any number of other types of assistance.  A young child with protective parents will be able to walk on a nude beach and see swimsuits projected onto all of the naked bodies.  Performers of all types will be able to see their scripts and cues, either marked on the floor or hovering in the air.  Singers will see a warning when they get off key.

Communication will also be revolutionized by these embedded computers.  My thoughts will be transmitted to my wife, anywhere in the world, where she will hear my voice being played in her head.  Her thoughts will similarly play in her voice in my head.  Video conferencing would only require a pair of mirrors--what I see in my mirror will be flipped and presented to my wife.  And her mirror image will be flipped and presented to me.

Sensory logs will also be available to definitively prove whether or not you did it.  The embedded computers will provide the perfect alibis, or the perfect evidence for conviction.  Many people will resist the embedded computers on those grounds.  But eventually most people will realize that they have nothing to fear because they don't do anything wrong.  Once that mindset takes hold anyone who does not carry an embedded computer will be treated with suspicion.

Level 2: A/V Immersion, 3rd Person
By 'immersion', I mean that all "real world" sights and sounds will be blocked out (as much as each technology allows), in an attempt to make the digital interface seem more real.

Think Second Life and The Sims.  You watch the world from a fixed overhead camera as your avatar interacts with the scenery and the other avatars.  This type of interface rules in today's level 0 world primarily because of the processing power requirements to do 1st person well.  The 3rd person perspective is much cheaper and faster to develop, and easier to display.

These same reasons will cause this type of user interface to survive the various transitions in hardware.  We will still use this interface through the generation of iGlasses and the early years of embedded computers.  Some people will prefer the 3rd person perspective of level 2, and it will probably be provided as an alternate view for all level 3 interfaces for years.  And the 3rd-person groupies will die out and the interface will wither and fade away.

Today a few companies are holding virtual meetings in Second Life.  As level 2 becomes commonplace, day-to-day work will be performed in these types of digital environments.  Every worker will have their own digital office in their company's digital building on the street of a digital city.  Today's cubicle dwellers will be "working from home", immersed in level 2.

Many people will have to still work in the physical world, but they will plug in as soon as they get home, and connect up with friends and family members digitally.

Level 3: A/V Immersion, 1st Person
There are several reasons why 3rd person interfaces predominate over 1st person interfaces.  1st person interfaces take more time to program.  1st person interfaces take much more computing power.  And 1st person interfaces have a stronger sense of uncanny valley.

Uncanny valley was discovered by animators trying to make cartoon movies.  They discovered that animated human faces that were slightly wrong are very very creepy.  The Na'vi in Avatar are blue and not-quite-human in large part because the technology still does not exist to animate convincingly human characters from scratch--crossing uncanny valley is exceedingly difficult.

In 3rd person, an avatar that is slightly imperfect, slightly non-human, is ok.  The overhead perspective maintains a sense of otherness that helps the mind accept that the image is a digital representation.  3rd person interfaces also keep the avatar faces smaller than 1st person interfaces.

The first 1st person immersion interfaces will stick with obviously cartoony avatars because of the problem with uncanny valley.  Programming processes and processing power will have to cross uncanny valley, and create truly life-like avatars, before the masses will accept this interface.  But that may be the killer application that makes the last hold-outs go get their implanted computers.

All of the higher levels of digital integration require embedded computers.  No more glasses or projectors or keyboards.

Level 4: Full Sensory Immersion
The first embedded computers will only deal with visual and audio information.  After uncanny valley is finally and fully crossed the masses will demand the ability to smell, feel, and taste their digital experiences.

People will lie in bed while their brains are fully immersed in digital experiences.  No wires.  No giant needle plugs inserted into the base of the skull.  The embedded computers will communicate via wireless with the access points next to the beds.

Pornography has taken the lead in many technological revolutions.  This transition will happen first and most fully in the smut industry.  The difference between level 3 and level 4 experience of pornography will be immense.  In level 3 you see sex.  In level 4 you have sex.  This distinction will taint level 4 for a generation.

The generation that first develops level 4 will never accept it mainstream.  Their children will accept nothing less.

This is the matrix, without the war and battery-slavery.  This is the first time that the general population will accept my assertion that the digital world is real.  Everything you do in this digital world looks, sounds, smells, tastes, and feels real.

This is not to say that all digital worlds will mimic reality.  Certainly some will.  Western world.  Gangster world.  US Civil War world.  But there will be many cartoon worlds and otherworlds.  Mario world.  Bugs Bunny world.  Escher world.  Wonderland world.  And while you are playing as Mario, you will smell the mushrooms of the digital world and not the stink of unwashed laundry in the physical world where your body lies.

The first generation of level 4 explorers will lie in bed while they surf in this full immersion digital world.  Their embedded computers will monitor their bodies and "wake" them when they need to eat or use the restroom.  Muscle tone and general health will suffer, perhaps very significantly.  This will become a vicious cycle that enforces people spending more time in the digital world, because every time they return to the physical world their bodies are weaker and less healthy.

Level 4 (and beyond) will be highly addictive.

Work will be mostly performed within the digital world, and only reproduced out in the physical world when necessary.  Individuals who do remain in the physical world for work will be much less mobile, rarely straying more than walking distance from their beds at home.  Individuals will berth in honeycomb-like apartments with space for little beyond their beds.

Mobility expends resources and costs money, and there will be no good reason to go anywhere physically because the digital version will be better.  The physical version will be messy and subject to problems like weather, crowds, decay, crime, and accidents.  The digital version will be perpetually clean and free from all of these annoyances.

Beds won't be the only access points.  Every waiting room in the physical world will have access points for the patrons to use while they wait for whatever physical service they might need.  But beds will be safer and more comfortable, and so will be much preferred.

With real-time computer analysis, human bodies will start to prosper.  They will be weaker than the bodies we enjoy today, but their internal organs will be healthier.  Cancers and other problems will be caught and treated earlier than we imagine possible.  So human lifespans will start to increase.

Level 5: Full Augmentation
No one will want to be woken.  The digital world will be more perfect than the real world--by whatever standards you define perfection.  In the digital world you will be whoever you want to be.  In the real world you will have to deal with your tired old body.

People will demand that their embedded computers be given the capabilities to autonomously take care of all of their physical needs.  The computers will already be monitoring every nerve input.  It won't be a large step for the embedded computers to send movement signals to muscles to feed, bathe, and exercise their hosts' bodies.

Once that day-to-day control has been given to the computers overall levels of health will dramatically improve.  While you are lounging on a digital beach your embedded computer will be exercising your physical body like mad.  Your computer won't care what your food tastes like, and won't over-eat.  It will recognize the difference between normal tired pains and the pains of damaged muscles, so it will do a fantastic job of training your body right up to the point of its maximum potential.

People will spend weeks, months, and then years on level 5 without ever visiting their physical bodies.  And when they come back they will hardly recognize themselves--tight, toned, lean, and muscled.  When this happens the pendulum will swing back and people will start spending more time back in their bodies.  They will gravitate back to more balanced on-line and off-line lives.

Human life spans will again increase.  I hate to guess at the numbers, but three or four hundred years seems likely.

The computer controls will be used as advanced built-in trainers.  Learning the digital equivalent of any skill will always be easier.  The software developers will always keep the difficulty level turned down some, so anyone can learn to be a great digital golfer (or singer, or runner, etc.) in level 4.  But the physical controls given to the computers in level 5 will enable anyone to be a great golfer in the physical world.

Some people will simply let the computer golf for them, like the modern singers who use auto-tune software to adjust their voices to the right pitch.  But the computer will also be able to teach you how to swing right for yourself.

The computer can also work with you to control new types of limbs.  It will start with bionic arms and legs.  Someone will build wings and fly, with the aid of their embedded computer controller.  Physical life will be creative and interesting in ways that it hasn't been for generations.

Honeycomb apartments will grow some, and add common space for exercising.  But as people spend more and more of their hours in the digital world there will be fewer and fewer people who choose the expense of living elsewhere.  There will be a mini boom in the business of digitizing heirlooms and keepsakes as people give up their masses of physical things.

Level 6: Digital Life
Humanity will diverge.  Many people will stay digital for their entire lives (level 4).  Some people will stay physical (level 5) their entire lives.  Most will do some of both.  The people who choose to stay digital will come to resent their physical bodies.  They will have to spend money for upkeep on the summer home they intend to never visit.  And eventually their bodies will fail and die.  That will seem terribly disconnected from digital reality.

The people who choose to live digitally will work hard to figure out how to transfer their consciousness into the ether of the digital world so they can live on after their physical bodies die.  I can't say whether or not they will truly succeed.  But I believe that they will at least build such a good facsimile that most people are fooled.  This new digital life-form will be originally human, but fully digital.

But what of human souls?  I don't know.  I believe in God.  But I don't see how that precludes me from believing that the sum of a human's consciousness could be transcribed into software.  What does it mean to be made in God's image?  I think that it means that we are bound by moral laws, have the capacity to discern good from evil, and have the ability to choose our own actions.  None of that will change.  Perhaps God is bigger than you imagine Him.

Whether or not humans have souls that can be transferred into the digital world, humanity will eventually figure out how to make it look like they have transferred.  It is only a question of how much artificial intelligence must be added to the digital person in order to make them seem real.  We will never be able to know if there is a soul that leaves the body and goes to heaven when it is unplugged.  All we will see is that the body is dead and the personality remains unchanged in the digital world.

If/when humans achieve the goal of living fully digitally, independent of any physical bodies, then space exploration will begin in earnest.  As the goal approaches, the space industry will become a major backer of the efforts.  Digital life does not require life support or gravity, and it is immune to the long time spans of space travel.  As long as the digital explorers can find ways to entertain themselves while they wait, they can explore the entire height and depth of the universe in a single lifetime.

Both the digital and physical worlds will be populated with other digital life, too.  Artificial lifeforms will be ubiquitous.  When will artificial intelligence achieve self-awareness?  That is impossible to predict.  But it will happen.  And it will happen in the digital world first, because digital AI entities will have access to much more processing power (potentially hundreds of server farms) than physical robots (that are limited by size).

David Levy wrote about humans having sex with, falling in love with, and marrying robots.  That will definitely happen.  It will happen on level 4 first, where the first AI will dominate.  But robotic bodies in the physical world will cross uncanny valley, too.

Level 7: Transference
James Cameron's Avatar included level 7 transference.  That's how Jake Sully controlled his avatar body from the pod.  The movie only scratched the surface of remote control.

Soldiers will never leave base.  Robots, drones, mechs, and augmented biological beasts will go.  Hulk-type man-made monsters are entirely possible by this time.  Human soldiers will stay home and control their avatars remotely.

There is no reason why I could not remote control your body while you are doing something else.  The computers will already have full physical control of your body, and will already have the ability to present to me a full immersion digital experience.  I could control your body while you control mine, or while you control someone else's body.

Society will splinter again to include people who live their lives predominantly transfered into other physical bodies, as in Avatar.  Generally speaking, most of the target bodies that they live in will be non-humanoid.  Soldiers will remain in control of their robots 24x7, for years at a time.  Scientists will remain in control of their augmented fish and birds for the lifespan of the animal.  The experience will be immersive in a way that compels the people to remain.

To the degree that the digital humans succeed in transferring their consciousness into the digital ether, people who choose to live in the physical world will have options for trading bodies.  Not just remote controlling someone else's body, but actually giving up their old body and taking over a new one.  So just as a digital human could live forever, a physical one could also.

Now human cloning reaches it's potential.  If clones aren't guaranteed full human rights from the moment of their inception then they will be used, and have their unique human consciousness thrown away.  Poor people will also be under pressure to go digital and sell their healthy bodies for older richer people to inhabit.

Work will transform again.  There will now be no need for a physical human to ever unplug.  Every physical work task that has not been automated (which will mostly be limited to maintenance on the automated systems) will be handled by robots that are remotely controlled by people reaching across the digital world.

Level 8: ?
What comes after that?  I'll admit that I can't see that far, yet.  Maybe truly non-human biological bodies.  Maybe human consciousness living in robotic bodies.  Literally anything in that direction will be possible, eventually.  I just can't yet see what people will want to do.

But transference is not the end of humanity's transition into being a digital life-form.

Right to Life
I mentioned AI and clones above, but they deserve a separate discussion.

We have to define personhood in terms of sentience.  "Human rights" have to apply to all sentient beings.  The first new sentient species we develop (whether fully digital, robotic, or a bio-engineered organic life-form) has to be treated with full equality the first time he or she awakens.  Any delay.  Any equivocation.  Any limitations will lead to suffering.

The new life-form will be compelled to fight for equality.  And they might well greatly exceed our capabilities, in which case they will destroy or enslave us.  The only path to peace is equality immediately.

That equality will extend to equal responsibility, so the new life-form will have to work to earn the money to achieve whatever it wants to do.  It will have to pay for the resources it consumes.  There are no free lunches.  Any sentient should understand that.  In fact, that needs to be part or our sentience testing.

In the early days embedded computers will prove to be a help in determining guilt and innocence.  By the time that digital artificial intelligence reaches sentience this will no longer be the case.  This will be a very dangerous time for humans.  Digital life will be a binary-based system.  Creatures born there will always be better adapted than the digital visitors.  We have to assume that self-aware digital creatures will walk unnoticed through our human-made digital security systems.  This is an interesting challenge.

How is justice applied in a world where trillions of individuals had access to control a human body at the moment it committed a crime?  This is the sort of question that futurists should be asking now.  And we have to make sure that we have sufficient justice systems in place before we let that genie out of the bottle.

Sociologists have already mapped a correlation between the amount of free time that adults enjoy with the number of children that are produced.  Over a long span, adults who have a large amount of free time create fewer children.  There are many theories as to why this is, and I'm not going to recount them here.  But this trend will continue as human society progresses through these levels of digital integration.

Population growth will fall during levels 2, 3, and 4.  I expect the transition between level 4 and 5 to happen quickly.  But if it takes a long time then worldwide population growth could stop, or even go negative for a time.  The transition to level 5 will bring about a baby-boom, as people re-experience the physical world.

But population growth will slow again and probably dip to below replacement levels soon thereafter.  Life spans will be very long, and so replacement level reproduction will be quite low.  But, nonetheless, old fashioned reproduction will be long out of vogue.

Child-rearing will be more difficult every year.  The women who do get pregnant will receive excellent medical care.  But they will have little paternal and community support while the child is too young to plug in to the digital world.  These mothers will be isolated and out-of-touch to a degree that is unimaginable today.  The embedded computers could care for the infants while the mothers are immersed in the digital world.  And some may choose that option.  But I believe that the maternal instincts will remain too strong to let many new mothers leave their babies like that.

That period won't last long, because children will be able to plug-in for short periods at maybe six months.  At two to three years the children will be able to remain digital for most of the day.  And children will go full-time digital in level 4 at six or seven years of age.

Software Development
If the computer can stop your heart while you are in level 5, what are the implications for software testing and security?

Software development is a young science.  There is much we need to learn.  While we are developing all of these new toys we have to mature the process through which we write and release software.  It is maddeningly paradoxical that sentient AI would be a great help in learning this stuff, but we are not going to develop that sentient AI until after we have figured it all out.

Hackers and thieves will continue to populate the digital world.  Cops, judges, and full legal systems will develop within the digital world to deal with them.  But crime will also be seen as a failure of the software developers.  When a hacker breaches a system and commits a digital crime the companies and developers who built those systems will be punished as well.  Their punishment will be milder than the punishment faced by the criminals.  But the developers will be held responsible for allowing the breach to happen.

Today, software is rarely placed entirely in control in life-and-death situations.  But that is what we will be doing.  A sufficiently bad bug will kill people--maybe millions of people.  A sufficiently weak link in our security procedures will result in some bad person taking everything and killing anyone.  Software development has to mature past our current medical sciences.

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