Today fear has become the main emotion that drives all the major decisions in our lives: We need mobile phones with better functions because we are afraid of not getting the most out of every moment; we need newer cars because they have better safety ratings than the one we have at the moment; we need to send our children to new fancy schools because we are afraid that we would otherwise compromise on their future; and so on and so forth. Simply speaking fear rules!
So then was does the future hold in store for us? A number of authors have painted vivid pictures of the dystopian society that we would find ourselves being a part of in the near future. While most of them are fairly bleak such as George Orwell’s version in his seminal works The Animal Farm and 1984 and of course the machine ruled futures depicted in Terminator and Matrix movies; there are a few depictions that may be more in line with the present state of affairs. One such depiction that we shall use as the basis for this article is as shown in the movie Her.
The protagonist in this case is still recovering from a broken marriage and finds the ideal companion in the form of an operating system driven by artificial intelligence! The gradual increase in intimacy between the hero and the operating system mimics the typical human to human relationship to an amazing extent. So then, although totally unexpected, the end makes perfect sense: the operating system dumps the human hero and moves off to live its life somewhere in the cloud with other similarly sentient operating system instances; the hero then meekly ambles back to the only other option: a human friend!
So what is there to be afraid of in this vision of the future? The answer: the way we try to address our need for a companion. Although this need is rooted in the biology of every living being, in humans it manifests in a quest to find a “perfect” companion in the form of a lover or a soulmate. It might thereby come as a surprise to many that in the hyperconnected world of today we are actually diverging from the “natural approach” to fulfilling this need: a series of physical interactions with other humans governed by our instincts. Instead we are relying on what people have to say about our virtual lives being played out on the stage of social media to decide who our companions should be.
It is very easy to appreciate why the later mechanism is so popular: it allows us to evaluate a larger pool of candidates within a shorter period of time while taking fewer risks than those associated with getting to know a person through physical intimacy. And, of course, we are still trying to find a human companion instead of placing our bets on a different species of sentient beings! Nevertheless the approach is inherently flawed.
It is flawed because it limits our perception of another person to a non physical dimension wherein our natural instincts are completely suppressed leaving us handicapped. It is also flawed because it allows us to hide our own shortcomings far more effectively thereby lulling us in to a false sense of acceptance from the other person. However, we are no strangers to real life encounters gone sideways wherein all decisions were based on instincts alone because biologically we are hardwired to act on certain instincts more than others! Therein then lies the dilemma that leads to a state of paralysis that we should really be afraid of.
Today we can neither give in to the unabashed optimism offered up in the virtual world of social media nor are we equipped to deal with the consequences of our actions in the real world that are driven only by unbridled passion!
This human condition of analysis paralysis will only be exacerbated with our growing dependence on the human-machine interface in the coming future and may lead to a society wherein we either give in completely to the machines such as that depicted in the movie Surrogates or to a society wherein the machines give up completely on humans, hopefully in a benign manner, such as that depicted in the movie Transcendence and Her. We should therefore strive to strike a balance between leveraging the virtual world to avoid certain risks and trusting our instincts in the real world to take the right amount of risks so as to retain our humanity!