Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

The Future of Digital Spaces and Their Role in Democracy

4. Work is needed now to prepare for a mind-bending future

Several of these experts wrote about the urgent need to make moves now to establish systems and processes to help society cope with expected modes of far more significant change that are currently in their early days that are likely to completely alter almost everything in the near to far future. They say it is important to address these likely possibilities today in order to prepare for and avoid the worst possible outcomes.

Imagining humans’ positive transition to a mind-blowing new paradigm for humanity

Barry Chudakov, founder and principal at Sertain Research, said, “Taking and evolving simulation and virtual representation from the gaming world, digital spaces will morph from apps and social media platforms into mirror worlds – the metaverse and ‘the third platform, which will digitize the rest of the world … all things and places will be machine-readable, subject to the power of algorithms,’ as Kevin Kelly wrote in Wired.

“Features of that logic include:

  • Digital twins (operating in digital spaces) create a doubling effect of everything and everyone.
  • Digital spaces’ mirror worlds start by complementing, then competing with – or replacing – reality (Truman Show syndrome).
  • Digital spaces evolve from solely a screen experience to more immersive, in-body, in-place experiences.
  • Augmented reality adds dimension to any experience within digital spaces.
  • Immersion in digital spaces challenges (devours) human attention.
  • Time compresses to Now, aka eternal nowness.
  • Identity is identity in the mirror (compounded exponentially by the implementation of digital spaces as mirror worlds).
  • Self goes digital: Digital spaces become the emerging venue for the presentation of self; I am who I am in digital spaces.
    • Identity is thereby multiple and fluid: Roles, sexual orientation and self-presentation evolve from solely in-person to in-space.
  • Privacy in digital spaces becomes a paid service with multiple layers and options like cable TV or streaming services (as tracking and data identification are built into all objects and all things start to think).
  • Everything (action, reaction, statement, response, movement) generates data, which exponentially increases the information barrage; the outmoded notion of memorization and retention are replaced with ambient findability.
  • Wholes become miscellaneous as everything is turned into miscellaneous data.
  • Navigation replaces rules.
  • Original and copy conflate, objects and experiences become duplicative, as digital spaces become mirror worlds and mirror worlds become the metaverse.
  • Cut and paste, copy and paste, are no longer merely computer commands, they are behaviors – the prevailing psychology of digital spaces.
  • Robots engage with the mirror world as augmented eyes and ears: “reality fused with a virtual shadow” (Kevin Kelly).
  • The need for interoperability and portability among digital spaces generates mandates for standards of governance.

“Market dynamics will force these digital spaces to become more ‘sticky.’ Commerce – making money – will drive this dynamic. To make more money, to get more people to spend more, any surviving digital space will decide it must become stickier. If you doubt that just watch or talk to teenagers playing video games. Video games are highly involving, addictive, engendering the ‘I don’t want to leave’ dynamic. That realization will not be lost on the designers of future digital spaces.

“Digital spaces will become the addictive video game/cellphone of the future. They promise information about any and everything, so we will be always plugged in and the spaces will always be updating, morphing, evolving. Soon – as users now do with cellphones – we will ignore conventional reality and/or people in that reality for life in the digital space. This is the first critical step in digital spaces competing with, and often replacing, conventional reality.

“To manage the assault of multiple simultaneous changes – new realities from emerging digital spaces – we will be forced to find a new language of ethics, a new set of guidelines for acting and operating in digital spaces. Even now, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) – part of the U.S. Department of Commerce – is asking the public for input on an AI risk-management framework. The organization is in the process of developing this framework as a way to help ‘manage the risks posed by artificial intelligence.’ This is an initial step in what will be a continuing process of understanding and trying to create reasonable protections and regulations.

“In 2035, many will see the merger of physical and digital worlds as an encroachment on their worldview. At the same time, facility of use and integration of physical and digital realms will improve many experiences and transactions. For example, the automobile will become a significant digital space. One notable improvement will be the reduction in the 38,000 deaths annually from traffic accidents. As driverless cars become mobile digital spaces with end-to-end digital information streaming in and out of each car our mobile digital experience will reduce accidents, deaths and congestion.

“The most noticeably different aspect of digital life for the average user in 2035 will be a more seamless integration of tools and so-called reality. Importing the dynamics of simulation and virtual representation from the gaming world, we will swallow the internet; digital spaces will move inside us.

“Time and distance will effectively vanish, whether you are implementing augmented reality, virtual reality or a mirror world in your interaction. Here is where I am, where I can find you or any other – so there is only here. There is only now. The proscenium arch and backstage of ‘The Truman Show’ will have disappeared.

“What is now known as ‘stickiness’ – the ways in which the design of a digital space encourage more engagement – will become full immersion. The outside of any digital space will be harder to fathom because physical spaces will include adjunct digital spaces (just as every business and person has a URL now) and – just as people today pore over their phones and ignore cars, pedestrians and loved ones.

“By 2035, digital spaces will become so immersive that we will have a problem. It will be extremely difficult to get people to disengage with those digital spaces. We will all become video gamers, hooked on the mirror world of the world.”

What about the potential impact of superintelligence, and why might it be important now?

Some respondents to this canvassing voiced concerns about the potential issues that may arise if superintelligence is developed in the years following humanity’s shift into more-immersive virtual and augmented reality spaces. Of course, the estimated timeline for this to possibly arrive varies, and some experts still doubt it may transpire at all. But the ranks of respected scientists and innovative entrepreneurs who have expressed both hopes and worries for humanity due to the potential rise of superintelligence have grown over the past decade. They have included Stephen Hawking, Stuart Russell, Bill Gates, Ray Kurzweil, Elon Musk and Masayoshi Son.

These leaders have said they expect that the recursive self-improvement of artificial intelligence will completely transform the world, possibly mostly for the better, possibly for the worse. They say it is obvious that these concerns are important to address today due to the ways in which recent rapid technological advances have already altered the world in significant ways in an extremely brief period of human history.

The following thoughts come from two experts in this canvassing who wrote deeply about that potential future in their responses, noting that this is why they believe that the time for smarter, forward-thinking technology design, governance decisions and societal evolution is today.

People must work much harder now to prepare for a much-different future

Jerome Glenn, co-founder and CEO of The Millennium Project, predicted, “The race is on to complete the global nervous system of civilization and make supercomputing power available to everyone. Another race is to develop artificial general intelligence (AGI), which some say might never get developed while others think it could be possible within 10 to 15 years; if so, its impact will be far beyond artificial narrow intelligence (ANI). Investments in AGI are forecast to reach $50 billion by 2023.

“As humans and machines become linked more closely, the distinction between the two entities will blur. Conscious technology will force us to confront fundamental questions about life.”

Jerome Glenn, co-founder and CEO of The Millennium Project

“The human brain projects of the U.S., EU, China and other countries – plus corporate ANI and AGI research – should lead to augmented individual human and collective intelligence. We are moving from the Information Age into the Conscious-Technology Age, which will force us to confront fundamental questions about life as a new kind of civilization emerges from the convergence of two megatrends. First, humans will become cyborgs, as our biology becomes integrated with technology. Second, our built environment will incorporate more artificial intelligence.

“Conscious technology raises profound dangers, including artificial intelligence rapidly outstripping human intelligence when it becomes able to rewrite its own code and individuals become able to make and deploy weapons of mass destruction. Minimizing the dangers and maximizing opportunities – such as improving governance with the use of collective intelligence systems, making it easier to prevent and detect crime and match needs and resources more efficiently – will require that we actively shape the evolution of conscious-technology.

“Like every other revolution in human history, from agriculture to industry to the internet, the arrival of conscious technology will have both good and bad effects. Can we think deeply and wisely about the future we want while we still have time to shape the effects of conscious technology?

“The age of conscious technology is coming as two mega technology trends converge: Our built environments will become so intelligent that they seem conscious, and humans will become so integrated with technology that we become cyborgs. Yes, humans will become cyborgs as our biology becomes integrated with technology. We are already microminiaturizing technology and putting it in and on our bodies. In the coming decades, we will augment our physiological and cognitive capacities as we now install new hardware and software on computers. This will offer access to genius-level capabilities and will connect our brains directly to information and artificial intelligence networks.

“Our built environment will incorporate more artificial intelligence. With the Internet of Things, we are integrating chips and sensors into objects, giving them the impression of consciousness – as when we use voice commands to control heating, lighting or music in our homes. As our increasingly intelligent environments connect with our cyborg future, we will experience a continuum of our consciousness and our technology.

“As humans and machines become linked more closely, the distinction between the two entities will blur. Conscious technology will force us to confront fundamental questions about life. All ages and cultures have had mystics who have been interested in consciousness and the meaning of life, as well as technocrats who have been interested in developing technology to improve the future. All cultures have a mix of the two, but the representatives of each viewpoint tend to be isolated from and prejudiced toward each other.

“To improve the quality of the Conscious-Technology Age, the attitudes of mystics and approaches of technocrats should merge. For example, we can think of a city as a machine to provide electricity, water, shelter, transportation and income; or we can think of it as a set of human minds spiritually evolving and exciting our consciousness. Both are necessary. Without the technocratic management, the city’s physical infrastructure would not work; without the spiritual element, the city would be a boring place to live. Like the musician who reports feeling his consciousness merge with the music and his instrument to produce a great performance, one can imagine the future ‘performance’ of a city, or of civilization as a whole, as a holistic synthesis experience of the continuum between technology and consciousness.

“History teaches us that civilizations need a kind of ‘perceptual glue’ to hold them together, whether in the form of religious myths or stories about national origins or destinies. The idea of a feedback loop between consciousness and technology moving toward a more enlightened civilization offers a perceptual glue to help harmonize the many cultures of the world into a new global civilization.

“There are profound dangers along the path toward a conscious-technology civilization. At some point, it is likely that development will start to happen very quickly. When artificial intelligence is able to rewrite its own code, based on feedback from global sensor networks, it will be able to get more intelligent from moment to moment. It could evolve beyond our control in either a positive or a destructive fashion. The question is: By exploring scenarios about the possible future evolution of artificial intelligence can we make wise decisions now about what kinds of new software and capabilities to create?

“As cognition-enhancing technology develops, we will have a world full of augmented geniuses. With the new perceptual, technological and artificial biological powers at their disposal, a single individual could be able to make and deploy weapons of mass destruction – a prospect known as SIMAD, or ‘Single Individual Massively Destructive.’ We already have structures, albeit imperfect, to monitor and prevent the mass-destructive capacity of nation-states and groups – what structures could prevent the threat of SIMADs?

“Connecting human brains directly to information and artificial intelligence networks raises the question of whether minds could be hacked and manipulated. How can we minimize the potential for information or perceptual warfare and its potential consequence of widespread paranoia?

“Accelerated automation will render much of today’s work unnecessary. Driverless vehicles could remove the need for taxi, bus and truck drivers. Personal care robots could take over many functions of nurses and care workers. Artificial intelligence could make humans redundant in professions such as law and research. Will conscious technology create more jobs than it replaces? Or is massive structural unemployment inevitable, requiring the development of new concepts of economics and work?

“If we think ahead and plan well, the conscious-technology civilization could become better than we can currently imagine. Governance could be vastly improved by collective intelligence systems; it could become easier to prevent and detect crime; needs and resources could be matched more efficiently; opportunities for self-actualization could abound; and so on.

“We must think through the possibilities of the Conscious-Technology Age today in order to shape its evolution to create the future civilization we desire.”

The grandest challenge humans face may be the emergence of a dangerous alternative species

David Barnhizer, a professor of law emeritus, human rights expert and founder/director of an environmental law clinic, said, “The ‘bad’ in celebrating the undeniable ‘good’ that will flow from further developments in AI and robotics, is that we can move too fast and be blind to the ‘bad.’ We face extremely serious challenges in our immediate and near-term future. Those challenges include social disintegration, largescale job loss, rising inequality and poverty, increasingly authoritarian political systems, surveillance, loss of privacy, violence and vicious competition for resources. With the possibility of social turmoil in mind, former Facebook project manager, Antonio Garcia Martinez, quit his job and moved to an isolated location due to what he saw as the relentless development of AI/robotic systems that will take over as much as 50% of human work in the next 30 years in an accelerating and disruptive process. Martinez concluded that, as the predicted destruction of jobs increasingly comes to pass, it will create serious consequences for society, including the probability of high levels of violence and armed conflict as people fight over the distribution of limited resources.

“Tesla’s Elon Musk describes artificial intelligence development as the most serious threat our civilization faces. He is on record saying that the human race stands only a 5% to 10% chance of avoiding being destroyed by killer robots. Max Tegmark, physics professor at MIT, has also warned that AI/robotics systems could ‘break out’ of human efforts to control them and endanger humanity. Tommi Jaakkola, an MIT AI researcher described the dilemma, explaining: ‘If you had a very small neural network [deep learning algorithm], you might be able to understand it. But once it becomes very large, and it has thousands of units per layer and maybe hundreds of layers, then it becomes quite un-understandable.’ He added, ‘We can build these models, but we don’t know how they work.’ This fact exists at a point that is quite early in the development of AI.

“If Masayoshi Son, CEO of SoftBank, is right, the AI future is a great danger. Like anyone else trying to gain a sense of our future, we simply don’t know what the future holds, but we are playing with fire and beset by unbounded hubris and tunnel vision. Like opioid and heroin addicts, it seems that we simply ‘can’t help ourselves’ and will innovate, create and invent right up to the point when we aren’t in control. Just because you can do something does not dictate that you should. … Stephen Hawking warned: ‘I believe there is no deep difference between what can be achieved by a biological brain and what can be achieved by a computer. … Computers can, in theory, emulate human intelligence – and exceed it. … And in the future, AI could develop a will of its own – a will that is in conflict with ours. In short, the rise of powerful AI will be either the best, or the worst, thing ever to happen to humanity.’

“Hawking is not alone. Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom focuses on the development of artificial intelligence systems, although he says he hopes that future will be quite positive, he has raised the possibility that fully developed AI/robotic systems may be the final invention of the human race, indicating we are ‘like small children playing with a bomb.’ The developments in AI/robotics are so rapid and uncontrolled that Hawking posited that a ‘rogue’ AI system could be difficult to defend against, given humans’ greedy and stupid tendencies.

“Already today we are inundated with deceptive AI propaganda ‘bots’ and subjected to continuous invasions into our most private and personal information. Big data mining is being used by businesses and governments to create virtual simulacra of us so that they can more efficiently anticipate our actions, preferences and needs. This is aimed at manipulating and persuading us to act to advance agendas and to deliver advantages. If people such as Hawking, Tegmark, Bostrom and Musk are even partially correct in their concerns, we are witnessing the emergence of an alternative species that could ultimately represent a fundamental threat to the human race.”

Icon for promotion number 1

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Fresh data delivery Saturday mornings

Icon for promotion number 1

Sign up for The Briefing

Weekly updates on the world of news & information