As a species, we have begun a transformation as far-reaching as the industrial revolution or the invention of the printing press. We are now a digital society, living in two worlds – the physical world and the digital world that exists online, in our phones and PCs. Every human activity, from news and socializing to the way we do business, now depends on the digital ecosystem we have created. Without it we cannot function. And yet, we are now inadequate for survival in this new information age.
More news, blogs and writing are produced than we can ever read, more movies and shows than we can ever watch – and via social networks, we now have more “friends” than we can ever do justice to. With a hundred different sources and interests competing for our attention, we are driven to do more, read more, and consume more. To survive this change, we must adapt.
Most digital consumer products today are sold on the promise that you will be able to do new things with information in new situations – whether it’s listening to podcasts or audiobooks during your commute, socializing with friends while you’re at work, checking email at the airport, or browsing the web while you have a coffee. We cope by spending more of our time with computers, and by multi-tasking to ensure that every waking moment we are “plugged in” and aware of the very latest news on every topic or person we care about. If we continue on this path, we risk losing ourselves. We are becoming computers – processing more and more information, in parallel, ever in need of more cycles to consume the torrent of data inputs. We need to stop and re-evaluate what computers are for.
Computers were created as tools to help us work faster and with greater efficiency; clearly an overwhelming success. But they gave us far more. As they were applied to new problems, new industries emerged and old ones were threatened. We seized the capability to do more, and life, like business, became a 24-hour endeavour. Somewhere along the way we forgot that computers are our servants, and we became slaves to them.
We need to consider what we stand to lose – we need to stop mindlessly reacting to stimuli and start building a positive future for our children. It’s perfectly possible to program software that works for us, independently monitoring our digital worlds so we don’t have to. With a little training, computers can learn what’s important to you, and differentiate urgent information from news that could be made available later, in an easy-to-read summary. Your software agent will do more than just respond to commands, it will act independently, researching topics of interest, finding information and news relevant to you, and filtering out the rest. It will need to understand your goals, your contexts, your relationships, and always act in your best interests. Not just to serve you more of what you like or what’s popular, but also to offer contradictory perspectives and new ideas, sources that challenge us to think differently and grow as humans, not as mass-culture-consuming machines.
In the future, your computer will be your guide and assistant. It will be your symbiote – without you, it will have no purpose, and without it, you will be reduced to only those senses nature gave you, stripped of the digital superpowers that make you Human 2.0. Like a human assistant today, it will communicate on your behalf, act as your proxy, and make educated guesses about what to do, checking with you later if need be – freeing you to spend time with friends and family or to express your creativity once again. It will make some mistakes, but you’ll teach it, as you would a child. Over time, you’ll trust it with more responsibility, while never yielding control. It will protect your data from corporations and governments, while still sharing your precious moments with family and friends. It will watch and learn from you, and reflect things back to you to make you a better person – lifestyle patterns that might be damaging, treasured relationships that you’re neglecting, or important tasks you’ve forgotten.
Intelligent agents are not science fiction. Many of the building blocks are here today – for example Siri, Cyc, OTSN, Reqall and the Google Prediction API. We have a choice what to build next. Let’s stop consuming and start evolving.
This essay was published as a chapter in the anthology book “The Future We Deserve” which is available online or on Amazon.
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