The Fear and AWE of Techno-Utopia

06/20/2017 05:01 pm ET Updated Jun 20, 2017
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Ghosts Of The Concrete World is a piece of digital artwork by Cameron Gray
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Technology evolved our species. From simple stone tools to satellites in space and reprogramming our DNA - our tools developed us in exponential ways.

The speed of change is mind blowing. The rate of change that would happen in an age or a lifetime is now happening on a daily basis. We are launching into a future where we can create and manipulate a virtual reality, where augmented humans become super humans and where super AI become our next evolutionary stage.

But what will be the fate of Homo-Sapiens? Where do we find ourselves in this new evolutionary stage?

Is this Techno-Utopia all it’s cracked up to be? And is it for everyone or just for the very wealthy and privileged, like most of the distributive technologies which have been transforming our reality at light speed.

What happens to us when we have super augmented humans and AIs running around amongst old-fashioned homo sapiens?

<a rel="nofollow" href="http://www.augmentedworldexpo.com/" target="_blank">Augmented World Expo</a>
Augmented World Expo
Augmented World Expo

In early June 2017, over 4500 participants, 351 speakers, and 212 exhibitors

Met at the Santa Clara convention center in Santa Clara, CA for the 8th Augmented Worlds Expo. The exhibition hall was filled with the latest and greatest Virtual Reality experiences, Augmented Reality technology and other cutting-edge technologies and companies. The event has grown and is becoming global with the Asian Expo coming in July 2017 and the European one in October 2017.

This year, beyond its excellent production quality, great speakers and an overall great experience, I also found an industry and subculture that is coming of age in many ways. It seems that the industry and its contributors and investors are privy to the distribution and transformation they are about to unleash on humanity.

For the first time in history, the difference Tech brought forward in this conference is about to create a superhuman. These technologies will change and augment homo-sapiens and what it means to be human.

To investigate more about the state of augmented humanity, I sat down with Jay Iorio, Director of Innovation of IEEE-SA, part of IEEE - the world’s largest technical professional organization dedicated to advancing technology for the benefit of humanity.

I had a long and profound conversation with Jay, specifically focusing on ethics around the question I raised above: In a world where we have developed machines smarter, faster and more evolved than humans - how do we protect the rights of humanity?

Jay believes we have gotten to a stage where technology cannot escape the moral question. Virtual reality is promising a world without friction, but we grow through friction. With the evolution of smaller and smaller augmentative technology, we are nearing the stage of implants in our eyes and our brains.

“One of the things I focus on is the elimination of friction. The marketplace and the consumer will always go for something that is easier, that is friction free. Those are not necessarily the values that will lead to a better people or a better society. A lot of good things that happen in our society are because of friction: We encounter ideas and individuals we don’t want to face. It toughens us up and causes us to rethink our thoughts. I can see that once we model a reality very exactly with an Artificial Intelligence type system, it will be almost inevitable that we are going to want to eliminate a lot of things that we don’t like about life. And in doing that, I think, you remove a lot of important things: Chance encounters, serendipity, randomness. It tends to lead to a world in which we tend to think that the rest of the world is much more like us than it is, it tends to result in lack of appreciation for the diversity of the population. We’ve always had artists and inventors, people who by nature rock the boat and change things, and those are a crucial piece of society - we cannot evolve without this. These tools, left to their own devices, will lead to a suburbanization of the mind. The virtual worlds will be so real they will be indistinguishable to the eye. Then you come to the big question of what is reality at that point. “

As we talked, I thought of this great piece by Keiichi Matsuda HYPER-REALITY

“Hyper-Reality presents a provocative and kaleidoscopic new vision of the future, where physical and virtual realities have merged, and the city is saturated in media.”

For some, this could be the best thing - always on, always gamified existence. For others, including myself, this proves as a nightmare scenario where you cannot escape and already chaotic existence of urban life. Where the mind, already over saturated and bombarded by constant input, knows no rest.

My conversation with Jay went deeper into the time where we will be in this surreal new world where we are constantly on and cannot escape the digital reality:

“As soon as we get into Augmented Reality [AR] which is worn so close to our eyes - a smart contact lens of sorts, you may be free to still opt-out, but the illusion is going to be so compelling and immersive that the chances are that we won’t. But then once it’s at this zero point - when those are implants - at that time you may lose free will. It raises all kinds of questions about morality - how can you be a good person if you are not free to be a bad person? As soon as those decisions are taken from us, if the AI knows better, we don’t even know that the decision is made for us as it may become an automatic system. Those are quite ethical questions. "

IEEE did a Call To Action to try and build these conversations of ethics and free will into the emerging tech of AI[ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE], and AS [AUTONOMOUS SYSTEMS], like an engineer building a security system within the platform, she is building.

“This is beyond security; this is based on a philosophical observation. These topics have been discussed for thousands of years, by philosophers, and that is where some of the wisdom need to be drawn from. We need to digitize some of the ancient wisdom. This is the first time in history that we have been able to create reality. Not an abstraction with a frame around it, but a virtual reality that’s becoming so real, soon we won’t be able to distinguish between the real world and the dream world. We are at a point where the technology cannot escape the moral questions anymore. In the name of convenience and smoothness, we might eliminate a lot of the rough edges that make up the grooves on the record. "

So how do we start building Ethical interoperability built into the underlying code?

Jay Iorio is part of IEEE collaborative project called:

ETHICALLY ALIGNED DESIGN : The IEEE Global Initiative for Ethical Considerations in Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Systems. Ethically Aligned Design: A Vision For Prioritizing Wellbeing With Artificial Intelligence And Autonomous Systems, Version 1. IEEE, 2016. http://standards.ieee.org/develop/indconn/ec/our-ai-vision.html?learn-more-3=Learn+More

The General principles of this document, are reminiscent in a way to Asimov’s three laws of Robotics:

  1. Embody the highest ideals of human rights.
  2. Prioritize the maximum benefit to humanity and the natural environment.
  3. Mitigate risks, and negative impacts as AI/AS evolve as socio-technical systems.

In their deeper exploration they look into these sections:

  • Embedding Values into Autonomous Intelligence Systems
  • Methodologies To Guide Ethical Research and Design
  • Safety and Beneficence of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) and Artificial Superintelligence (ASI)
  • Personal Data and Individual Access Control
  • Reframing Autonomous Weapons Systems
  • Economics/Humanitarian Issues
  • Law

In our conversation, Jay and I talked about the idea of ethics being mental or moral externalities (externalities are the consequences of economic activities by unrelated third parties. Pollution is one common externality created as a side product of industry and affects everyone).

As our civilizations become god-like and we obtain superpowers, not all of humanity will continue to move forward, and a lot will be left behind.

Humans are now in control of our evolution - but should we be?

We all need to become futurists, to understand what is coming and thus be able to assess what is happening.

We need to see how we use these technologies for good.

But we also need to remember that we can separate from our bodies and become detached minds - and is that truly where we want to go?

One of my favorite keynotes of the expo was by the brilliant Tish Shute, co-founder of Augmented Worlds Expo and Director of AR/VR at Huawei Technologies . Tish is a synthesist – a corporate technology and product strategist, entrepreneur, and innovator. In her talk, Tish brought forward Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella 10 Laws for AI. These 10 laws embody a lot of what is also discussed in the ETHICALLY ALIGNED DESIGN document. These are questions and concepts that need to be raised as we are moving towards hailing a new age of intelligent machines and calling forth the singularity.

Tish brought forward the idea of XR - exponential reality. This definition wants to put together VR [Virtual Reality], MR [Mixed Reality] and AR [Augmented Reality] into a new categorization that looks at exponential humans. It seems that the most quoted person during this three days conference was Yuval Noah Harari:

Tish Shute

Yuval’s quote is what it means to live in a world where people have super powers. It’s not about upgrading our external tools, that’s the old idea of AR - a new UI to the world. We’ve moved beyond this. We arrived in times where soon we will have the abilities to upgrade the human body, augment it and the mind and merge it with our tools.

Tish Shute

And this is the three paths it may show. We at the beginning of a new era, as Yuval Calls our next evolutionary phase - Homo Deus - the God-Human.

The thread that was weaved through this event was the fear and awe of these technologies. On one side, the program kept using the tagline “Super Powers to change the world” but also acknowledging the dangers of these technologies. In his talk, Black Mirror / White Mirror: A Look at our Utopic and Dystopic AR Futures, Super Ventures partner and co-producer of AWE, Tom Emrich looks at both side of this conversation: from Empathy through VR immersive experiences, to super power to the people, which now focuses on helping people with disabilities but will expand to all of us: “Gone will be the days where we are limited by the limitations we are born with. The only limitation will be whatever is in our pocket in terms of how much we can spend”. Tom also discussed the potential of a quantum jump in spirituality and how the meme in the more spiritual world discusses the paradigm shift in human consciousness at the same time the technologist are hailing a huge shift.

On the contrary, these technologies might bring humanity to live in deep isolation, truth and reality might disintegrated and is the future of AR/VR will be one long digital interaction where we find ourselves isolated, alone and scared.

The big question is where does the Black Mirror, like the dystopian TV show brings forward, starts and where does the White Mirror starts?

My favorite talk of the event was the amazing storyteller and futurist, Jason Silva. Jason is by far, one of the more eloquent thinkers I’ve seen in years.

His brand of inspirational videos on youtube, “Shots of Awe” aligned beautifully with the AWE of Augmented Worlds Expo. He gave an excellent talk about the evolution of humanity and how we are creating our evolutionary children with AI and augmented humans.

He reflected on how humanity has been using instruments to extend our agency, transcend and overcome our limits.

We are Living in the age of exponential change. The rate of change is beyond what our ancestors were used to in a few generations.

We used to live in a world that was linear and local and now we live in a world that global and exponential but our brains and intuition are still wired to think of change in a linear fashion.

Exponential transformation: the phones in our pockets, the tool you take for granted is a million times faster, a million smaller and a thousand times stronger than something that used to be half a building in size 40 years ago. And this is not changing - in 40 years our phones will be the size of a blood cell and will change us from within - all of this is not changing - it’s getting faster.

All the ways we can Steward the contents of our consciousness

Jason reflects in his talk, how Technology is the embodiment of human creativity in the world.

I got the chance to speak with Jason one on one and asked him about his view of the light and shadow of technology and what his view of technology as a real creator for change.

He reflected how technology could be demonized, not without reason but to keep a positive possibility for the future; positive vision is essential if we are to truly grow as a species.

If there is so much darkness in our collective narratives and all we are showing in our mainstream media is dystopia, his vision is of a techno-utopia where we become more human, more super, more conscious and more feeling. Jason wants to bring forward the meme of the White Mirror, the light to shine our shadows, and the optimism that we can become great evolved humans, who feel, experience and be entranced in states of bliss.

We become the architects of our future and we can envision a great one . One where we don’t need to ever get down from our bliss and our highs. But in actuality, what David Pierce called, “Paradise Engineering” - creating pleasures and paradise beyond anything we can imagine, or as Jason said it in his newest Shots of Awe video - After the ecstasy, more Ecstasy.

In his book, Homo Deus - A brief history of tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari, who seems to be the prophet du jour of the augmented human and Dataism movement, looks at our species, the Sapiens as it evolves into the new Homo-Deus - the God-Human.

“In the 21 century the train of progress is again pulling out of the station, and this will probably be the last train ever to leave the station called Homo-Sapien. Those who miss this train will never get a second chance. To get a seat on it, you need to understand 21st-century technology. And in particular the powers of biotechnology and computer algorithms...The gap between those who how to engineer bodies and brains and those who do not will be far bigger than the gap between Sapiens and Neanderthals. In the 21 century, those who ride the train of progress will acquire divine abilities of creation and destruction. While those left behind will face extinction.“

Our species is in crisis. But some believe that a crisis is our birth. But is it a birth of a new species that, like us, Homo-Sapiens, will destroy the less technologically advanced species that came before us, as we did to the Neanderthals. Or will it be a more human than human species, one that is not only highly intelligent but conscious and empathetic beyond our wildest dreams?

One that will engineer paradise, not only for themselves but for all beings sharing this beautiful planet earth.

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