Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Dystopia for the Disrupted?

The debate surrounding our digital lives being ‘disrupted’ is nearly as constant as the never-ending stream of status updates on social media. To digital natives, it’s a new age of transparency, always-on connectivity, and the democratization of knowledge. To the late adopters, it’s a bacchanal of slacktivism, smartphone addiction, and narcissistic culture.

So is today’s technophobia a cultural dystopia for the disrupted?

In many ways, our early 21st-century data-driven culture is just the beginning. We now measure metrics for experiences previously thought to be ‘unmeasurable’. We quantify aesthetic qualities of art, music, and design via computer algorithms. Corporate-earnings reports are now written in less than a second through software. This new wave of technology will be the catalyst to a post-industrialist future -- engineered increasingly by algorithms and intelligent agents rather than humans.

For example, take the proliferation of ‘bots’ on Twitter. It has been estimated that approximately 24% of all tweets on Twitter originate from bots. Some tweet every word of the English language every 30 minutes, while others report earthquakes in the San Francisco Bay Area, and yet others self-compose poetic tweets.

Another project, by the Machine Learning group at the University of Toronto, highlights deep learning by taking an image and converting it into a sentence describing the image. While not perfect, it’s a fascinating view into the possibilities of algorithmic image recognition.

During the most recent earnings season for publicly-traded companies, corporate-earnings reports hit the newswires. Instantly, the data was compiled and passed through a proprietary algorithm. The software captured specific numbers (in the report) and matched them against its database of relevant information. The software, in milliseconds, produced a completely-written article; entirely indistinguishable from one written by a human.

These are just a few of the early adopters in this new era that seek to amalgamate engineering, art, and news. And this is just the beginning!

Yet there is skepticism towards these new technologies. Particularly, their anti-social effects.

Fabian Giesen (a former video game developer) has expressed concern that virtual reality technology (such as Oculus Rift) is on a “sad trajectory of entertainment moving further and further away from shared social experiences”.

Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto also shares the view that virtual reality gaming will lead us down a path that further promotes isolation. In an interview by the Guardian, he states that virtual reality is “in direct contrast” with the design goals of the Wii U. He goes on to state, “I have a little bit of uneasiness with whether or not that’s the best way for people to play.”

Nikolas Kompridis, a Canadian philosopher and political theorist, has also written about the dangers of genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and robotics. He warns that these technologies introduce unprecedented new challenges to humans, including the possibility of the permanent alteration of our biological nature.

Despite those that are instinctually suspicious of new paradigms, technology continues to permeate and fundamentally alter nearly every aspect of most people's lives. It has the capacity for tremendous benefit, yet great harm. The challenge we face is not the dichotomy of humans vs. machines; rather, it is understanding how we coexist with technology to raise the human potential.