It was heartbreaking, that final glance, when he saw his wife and kids for the last time. Memories flashed back, in heartbreaking cascades, of all those special moments – the first time he met his wife, his son’s first steps, his daughter’s first words, family picnics, the long drives, the dinner-time banter.
How quickly it all seemed to go by, he wondered, before he took off his virtual reality (VR) headset and returned to the chaos of his actual family. He was right, it actually had gone by pretty quick, a total of two hours and 45 minutes to be precise.
To some, this might sound ambitiously futuristic, perhaps comically so. They clearly haven’t experienced existing VR offerings in the marketplace. Because the slightest exposure to immersive 3D VR should suffice to denude even the most hardened sceptic of any doubt that in the next few decades, a significant percentage of people will simply be plugged into alternative virtual realities.
And VR is riding on the wave of artificial intelligence (AI), which is changing our very interface with reality as we know it. Digital bots modelled on self-learning algorithms are beginning to interact with humans as their virtual assistants. A few more years and your tax accountant will likely be a voice-enabled interactive bot who knows all your tax history better than you do, and will happily file your annual tax returns.
Much of our cognitive load will simply be outsourced to our benevolent, or not-so-benevolent, robot friends. Think spatial navigation, a critical aspect of human cognition, outsourced almost completely to smartphones. Sounds quite benign, till you realise human cognitive functions don’t quite operate in silos; they often fire up other cognitive functions too.
For example, good spatial navigation is often correlated with superior math skills. The human brain is, after all, a mesh of overlying functions and faculties, each feeding the other. The diminishment, therefore, of one function can easily lead to the diminishment of others. In other words, as our robot friends might get smarter, we might get dumber. And this perhaps is the greatest danger of all, that while in the Industrial Revolution, machines replaced humans in hard labour, the AI-powered robots of the digital revolution are replacing humans in cognitive tasks. You can take hard labour from a man, say a farmer, and teach him new skills, say data entry. But what do you teach a man when future flavours of Alpha Zero (an unparalleled AI-powered chess programme) take over the most complicated tasks performed by humans, and execute them with thousand-fold efficiency?
Now merge AI and VR and what you have is simulated worlds indistinguishable from base reality. VR is already becoming a big market for people to engage in fantasies that eluded them in real life. And if Facebook/Instagram are any indication of how we obsesses over our digital alter-egos, imagine the power of VR a few decades from now, the new frontier where we live as real as any reliable construal of actual reality. A few hours of immersive engagement could feel like weeks or months.
With all this change around the corner, it is true to say that everything – our traditions, belief systems, values, systems of governance, economic models, our entire way of life, and our very conception of what it is to be human – is completely up for grabs.
With advances in neuroscience, we might have pharmacological or surgical remedies for emotions like anger, envy, and spite. Just like the heart, liver, or kidney, the brain is an organ that can malfunction. Unlike other organs though, the brain’s malfunctioning can manifest in ways we might conceivably describe as ‘evil’ behaviour – lack of impulse control, rage issues, etc. Several techniques are being developed (for example, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to treat these malfunctions and a lot more is on the way.
How will belief systems, predicated largely on the notion of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, respond to this new paradigm? How will you explain evil in a world where ‘immoral’ actions are no longer viewed as the workings of an evil, cackling soul, but as neurochemical glitches in imperfect systems?
Furthermore, today we know our emotions are biochemical signals; they can be influenced. Imagine, not too far from now, nanobots swimming across your bloodstream or the biometric sensors on your body, collecting information at the most granular level and relaying it to a bot who will work out before you even realise what you might feel in the next few minutes or hours. Imagine your robotic assistant warning you that in one hour and 27 minutes you will likely feel sad or angry.
And how will AI and VR shape our understanding of consciousness? If consciousness is merely an epiphenomenon, something which comes along for the ride after a certain level of information integration has been achieved, as might be demonstrated in the robots of the future, then how will we view the experience of having a ‘self’ – the ‘I’ we all perceive authors our thoughts, actions, and feelings? If it is just information processing and calculations all the way down to the most atomic level, how will this impact our relationship to autonomous action and free will? What implications might this have on our legal systems based on the concept of retributive justice?
What about labour markets? Soon enough machine labour and automation will enable production capacities approaching the cost of raw material. Imagine a world where marginal costs hold steady for almost every good and service we can imagine. How will this impact the profit motive – the bedrock of free-market capitalism?
Again, anyone who finds this scenario inconceivable, or just plain bizarre, should think about this: 200 years ago, if you had come across some farmers tending to their farms, and had pulled out your smartphone and, with a single click, fired up a video conference with someone on the opposite side of the globe, all within a timeframe too short for the human mind to even perceive, carried over by signals the human eye cannot see, how do you think they would have reacted? And how might they have reacted had you shown them pictures of satellites and space stations orbiting Earth?
It is, therefore, quite conceivable that decades from now, people or cyborgs will look back at us with the same dismay we reserve for hunters and gatherers of the past. They will balk at all the needless wars we fought, the gratuitous damage we did to our climate and ecology, the ruthless systems of the economy we built around poor incentive structures, which promoted pretense, greed, and jealousy and yielded shocking levels of inequality and immiserated millions along the way, and the flawed justice we dispensed, based on a primal conception of the human brain, throwing people in steel cages, or simply hanging with their necks snapped.
Perhaps we are all better served to take a pause, understand ourselves, and be humbled by the acknowledgement of how much ground there is still left be covered for us to live up to our actual potential.
The writer is a freelance contributor.