Human Responsibilities on the Virtual Frontier

Separating the Wheat from the Chaff in the Virtual FrontierGuest blogger Maximilian Majewski writes:

Technology is not all bad. Just recently in India, a man reunited with his mother when, after a tragic event, they were separated 23 years ago. He found her using Google Earth. With a lot of dedication, he searched the maps of India to rediscover the village where he was born. Stories like this make one remember that, just 15 years ago, such a thing would have been impossible. This should be a testament to how fast technology advances. Arguably our knowledge base increases too, but people are not necessarily more intelligent. The more data there is, the harder it is to filter out the valuable information from the unusable. There is so much distraction on the Internet alone.

No matter how much we argue the disadvantages of an oversaturation with computers, one cannot deny the great achievements technology has made possible. The computer is the fascinating machine that, for many decades now, has helped us develop new skills. If we take the computer as a microcosm for what our world should ideally be like, then we claim a mind-blowing argument. It implies that we want a world that is clean, controlled, and mechanical.

We have seen films like The Matrix and Blade Runner, both of which show a radical, yet plausible, vision of what our future might be. On one hand, it might be a life consisting of a virtual version of yourself, but with your thoughts and your world intact; on the other hand, in this future, we share the world with our artificial counterparts. In the year 514 AD, Plato wrote the seminal Allegory of the Cave, which already illustrated this idea of the clash between reality and illusion.

The scenarios shown in The Matrix and Blade Runner are grim and perhaps rather truthful. The former tells a tale of humans versus machines, while the latter addresses the issues of AI rights. In The Matrix, we follow the hero Neo on his journey to discovering the truth about the world. In this world, it is not the machines, but us humans who began the war. Humanity lost against the rage of the machines. We lost because we were unwilling to grant even the most basic rights to the artificial intelligences we, ourselves, had created. In return, the machines built a simulation for the humans to make them think everything is as it was. In Blade Runner, the protagonist is on a mission to track and hunt down six rebelling Androids. When hero and villain come face to face, the ‘evil’ android Roy rescues our protagonist from sure death.

Both of these stories build on the same argument that everything we create will always retain a bit of humanity. This will hold true especially for robots, when they become indistinguishable from us humans. It is no different from creating a virtual world indistinguishable from ours. Both are created by humans, and thus are, in fact human. Hereditary imperfections will not be possible to eradicate. Even if artificial intelligence becomes self-aware, it is still bound by the perimeters of human nature. At least that will be so for a while.

If we are to create an artificial intelligence able to think on its own, then we must also respect it as we are taught to respect other human beings. Ironically, these robots might have the same shortcomings that plague us, since we want to create them in our own likeness. People today play games to become people they are not, and scientists create robots whose sole function is to imitate human emotions. Those of us who live in the ‘developed’ part of the world are trapped in an illusion of control. By playing games, we can believe that we choose our path. By creating artificial intelligence, we delude ourselves by thinking that we control creation. Truthfully, we are not changing anything, but simply trying to improve what we think is imperfect.

Such virtual worlds already exist in a way, with only one twist. They are called MMOs (massively multiplayer online), and millions of people engage in these worlds of fantasy. The so-called avatars they maneuver represent not who they are, but rather who they want to be. I play such a game myself, and in it, I can yield powers unimaginable in the tangible world. I personally love being able to roam the world of Star Wars. As others do, I impersonate a version of myself that does not exist.

What does this mean? Are we escaping reality and interacting with the world we wish would be ours? Ironically, these fantasy worlds are not much better. There is still good and evil in them, because humans imagined them. Now speculate for a minute, if the inception of such a virtual world would not follow a human concept. Could a virtual reality manifest itself without us meddling with its inner workings? This of course presupposes that a singular consciousness exists; we like to call it ‘artificial intelligence.’

In my previous editorial, I posed a question. Are we using computers so much as to think that they are using us? I did not mean that in a practical sense. Imagine, if you will, this limitless digital world exists and we can spend our lives in it. This artificial intelligence begins to think for itself. Yet it is thinking what we embedded in its code. A virtual world, inhabited by reflections of humans, is in fact nothing more than a simulation. In a later, more complex iteration, this artificial intelligence could be aware of its origin, just as we know where we come from.

Today, technology by itself cannot make anything happen. It always needs humans to give it a purpose. We are entering a new epoch, however, where all that we know is becoming ‘one.’ Either technology becomes a part of humanity, or we become a part of it. Luckily, technology is not yet at the point where seamless virtual worlds are possible. Until then, it remains a special effect in sci-fi films. At least in the western world, we will see an increase of tablet devices, while already one-third of the world’s population is online. This universal adoption of mobile technology is also accelerating our dependence on it. We want information instantly, wherever we are. Gone is the pioneering attitude of past centuries.

The daily growth of data is immense, but companies, like Google and Facebook, strive to conglomerate this data. Users upload billions of new photos to Facebook profiles each month. It also means this new digital age soon requires a complete rethinking of the infrastructure, as illustrated by the imminent switch from IPv4 to IPv6. As we race toward this computerized ‘world of tomorrow,’ we must brace ourselves also to answer questions about matters moral and historic.

We may ask ourselves if simple rules, like The Three Laws of Robotics by Isaac Asimov, can contain the artificial intelligence that might potentially be greater than ours. The virtual frontier is the threshold into a world that is not any better, but perhaps more forgiving. Yet the same rules of power and wealth reside even in virtual worlds. Technology may indeed improve our lives by making it easier, however, we are still responsible for our own well-being, and that of whatever artificial counterpart we may have.