Welcome to the Hybrid Age
We are on the verge of living in a human-technology civilization.
Posted Wednesday, June 13, 2012, at 8:15 AM
Finally, the rise of social robots is reshaping the milieu in which our identity forms by introducing an entirely new type of “other.” Robots are irrefutably becoming more ubiquitous, intelligent, and social. Already in the 1960s, subjects of MIT’s studies emotionally revealed themselves to the boxy and binary chatbot ELIZA. Since 2010, hospitalized children and elderly widows in daycare have increasingly been cuddling and emotionally bonding with Paro, the Japanese-designed robotic seal that physically responds to touch. For less than $10,000, the prototype Roxxxy sex robot can be made to look like anyone you want. It senses and responds to your touch and is Wi-Fi-enabled to send love notes. Each of these underscores the rise of robotic companionship.
For three nights in February 2011, millions of American households tuned in to watch the game show Jeopardy!, during which a machine, IBM’s Watson computer, “stood” between the show’s two all-time greatest players—and completely demolished them. Audiences around the world nodded, cheered, and whistled as Watson demonstrated contextual understanding of the complex idioms and puns that are the hallmark of the show’s mind-bending questions, answering almost all of them instantly and correctly. Two things happened on those nights. Advances in machine intelligence were on full display, far beyond IBM’s previous chess-playing Deep Blue computer. But equally importantly, we, the viewers, accepted a robot as a social actor in our lives. It was novel, but quickly became natural, even normal.
Artificial intelligence does not need to be fully autonomous to be compelling and persuasive. Rather, it needs to leverage the Noosphere and present itself in a compelling anthropomorphic fashion. We already have voice and gesture-based control of devices through Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Kinect. Lifelike robots that mimic our facial expressions, even while saying nothing profound, are sufficient to evoke Freud’s sense of the uncanny.
In various ways and with varying degrees of intelligence, robots today already perform surgery, sense earthquakes, bomb terrorists, fly planes, drive cars, baby-sit children, build hardware, trade money, fold laundry, perform in operas, and have sex (with humans). There is enough robotic penetration already to have inspired Carnegie Mellon to launch a robot census. As the definition of society expands to include humanoids and other robotic forms, how will our family structure be affected? Will each of us have robot companions longer than we have spouses? Will robots have rights? How will we hold them liable for accidents?
These are questions we may have to answer sooner rather than later, especially because the transition from pre-programmed to semi-autonomous robots has begun. MIT computer scientists have hacked and mounted the Kinect on a Segway, programming it to sense and manipulate objects, even to look for a power source to plug into. (Ordinary humans who own iPhones can certainly sympathize.) Honda’s Asimo can now walk along hallways and avoid bumping into others; soon he might be able to cross Tokyo’s infamously dense Shibuya crossing like an ordinary person. As Google’s driverless car begins to navigate blind passengers and eventually families around Nevada and beyond, we need to maintain clarity over who is ultimately behind the wheel.
The proliferation of identities in hybrid reality undoubtedly brings with it the schizophrenia of simultaneous temporal and digital lives. Technology immersion so defines hybrid reality that it requires a conscious effort to “tune technology out” through gadget-free spiritual retreats—but we show little sign of wanting to do so, with worrying results. South Korea, held up as a role model for its universal broadband connectivity and strong education system (and where most children above 6 have their own blog), is also a cautionary story given cyber-bullying, academic suicide, online addiction centers, and mandatory midnight curfews/blockage of leading gaming websites. One South Korean couple spent so many hours obsessively raising their virtual daughter Anima on the popular online game Prius that their own infant daughter (who remained unnamed) starved to death at home. In America, virtual voyeurism has had tragic consequences in real life, such as the Tennessee couple murdered in cold blood for de-friending an estranged ex-boyfriend on Facebook. Another couple met in Second Life, got married in real life, then divorced due to affairs each then had in Second Life.
For all of the risks and unanswered questions, immersive environments can also be extremely useful coaches for the emergent hybrid reality. In a virtual classroom, for example, the augmented gaze of the teacher can be focused simultaneously on all students, making instruction that much more persuasive. Instead of Déjà vu, Jeremy Bailenson’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford presents us with “Veja du”: the ability to see ourselves doing something we have not done physically. We can visualize what happens to our bodies if we don’t exercise, or a massive multi-player simulation can make clear the costs of global conflict.
The world population may plateau physically, but we are multiplying ourselves digitally and robotically. The measure of our ability to manage this hybrid reality of co-existing identities will not be IQ or EQ, but TQ—technology quotient.
This essay is adapted from Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization, recently published by TED Books.
Ayesha Khanna is the founder and director of the Hybrid Reality Institute and director of the Future Cities Group at the London School of Economics.
Parag Khanna is a senior research fellow in the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation and author ofThe Second World: How Emerging Powers are Redefining Global Competition in the 21st Century.